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Competition freaks

You know them, those people who just have to win. Now scientists are finding out what's behind the drive -- motivation, control, evolution -- and are trying to help.

November 28, 2005|Marianne Szegedy-Maszak | Special to The Times

"WINNING isn't everything," Vince Lombardi famously said. "It's the only thing."

For a particular group of competitors, Lombardi's one-liner is less a wry comment on cutthroat athletic competition than a simple fact of life. In boardrooms and bedrooms, in playing fields and universities, the hypercompetitive person appears -- transforming even the most trivial transaction into a ruthless face-off with a winner and a loser.

We know it when we see it. The squash champion father who introduces his 12-year-old son to the game by beating him 15 to 0, three games in a row. The ruthless queen bee who dominates her social group with cattiness and designer everything. The out-of-control soccer mom berating the referee from the sidelines; the husband banned from playing family board games because he ruins the game when he wins -- and ruins the entire evening when he loses.

Today, a broad array of recent psychological research has led some researchers to conclude that hypercompetitiveness resembles a diagnosable mental disorder -- a volatile alchemy of obsessive compulsiveness, narcissism, neurosis and sometimes a dose of paranoia.

Psychologists have even linked the hypercompetitive personality to such seemingly disparate conditions and behaviors as road rage, drunk driving, eating disorders, addiction and depression.

It's a style and temperament that affects all other relationships and which, over time, becomes fundamentally impairing, causing fractured families, social isolation and even the disintegration of careers.

Psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists are examining the forces that may create these personalities, and trying to figure out ways to better help them.

Such win-at-all-costs behavior may be unsettling but, truth be told, it's not so very far from what our culture views as laudable.

"We define the American dream as people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps," says Steven Eickelberg, a Paradise Valley, Ariz., psychiatrist who specializes in the psychology of high-performance competitors and whose clients include high-profile athletes and business executives. "But how many people do we walk over to be successful? When is this kind of competition admirable, and when is it pathological?"

Nearly every day a story appears about a hypercompetitor dragging a company, or a team, or simply himself into a terrible mess.

Only this month, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens was benched despite his magnificent performance while injured in the Super Bowl. Too many other times, his behavior was characterized by belligerence and vocal demands for attention. Owens recently complained that he didn't receive sufficient recognition for his 100th career touchdown reception during a game against the San Diego Chargers on Oct. 23. And when he thought that other players had been talking about him behind his back, he stormed into the locker room and challenged them to a fight.

In fact, the pantheon of the hypercompetitive in American sports and business is littered with examples of bad behavior. In 1978, Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, nicknamed "the assassin," hit another player so hard he became a quadriplegic. He not only didn't apologize but justified his action saying, "It was a clean hit."

Then there's Albert J. Dunlap, a notorious chief executive who referred to himself as "Rambo in pinstripes." Dunlap's Agent Orange management style -- which earned him the nickname "Chainsaw Al" -- involved firing thousands of employees, demeaning anyone who disagreed with him and plowing through the company's assets. His actions helped bring Sunbeam Corp., which he took over in 1996, from a $1-billion company to Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

At the core of every massive corporate unraveling, whether it is Sunbeam, Enron or the Helmsley Hotels, sits a hypercompetitive manager or CEO, says Barbara Kellerman, research director for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of the 2004 book "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters."

"At a minimum, those whose competitiveness makes their reach exceed their grasp are ineffective and unethical; at a maximum they are downright detrimental to society," Kellerman says.

Even without such public wreckage, there is something unsettling, even alienating, about the person who just can't seem to turn it off -- for whom a game of Candyland with the kids is played with the same intensity as a championship tennis match.

Hypercompetitiveness may be behaviorally inevitable, says UCLA evolutionary biologist Jay Phelan. That's because some degree of competitiveness is a very human trait. "We are built for always wanting to do a little bit better and accumulate more," says Phelan, coauthor of the 2000 book "Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts." As humans, we have evolved to be competitive, he says. But some people are at the extreme end of the spectrum and compete to extremes.

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