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How you compete: Knowing the score

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

The spectrum of competitiveness in our species ranges from the peaceful, Zen-like, cooperative lamb to the vein-throbbing Rambo-on-steroids type. Research psychologists have devised several different tests to measure the trait -- with big differences in the nature of the questions on their scales and the way that they are framed.

In the process, they've learned that pathologically competitive people aren't merely extreme versions of well-functioning, healthily competitive folks, but need a different set of questions to capture their pathology.

John Houston, a professor of psychology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., has designed a Competitiveness Index to assess normal ranges of competitiveness.

Some true-false questions from his scale:

1) Competition destroys friendships.

2) Games with no clear-cut winners are boring.

3) I often try to outperform others.

4) In general, I will go along with the group rather than create conflict.

5) I enjoy competing against an opponent.

6) I dread competing against an opponent.

If the answers to Questions 2, 3 and 5 are true, for example, then the person responding probably is very competitive.

Houston tested his scale on various professionals and found that those who scored the highest were professional athletes, real estate agents who sold time shares and trial lawyers. The lowest? Nurses. He also compared the competitiveness in China and Japan with that in the U.S. and found American males were the most competitive.

Psychologist Richard Ryckman of the University of Maine, who has been studying hypercompetition for the last 15 years, developed a scale for measuring the extremes. His Hypercompetitive Attitude Scale uses a 5-point scale ranging from "never true of me" (which scores as a 1) to "always true of me" (scores as a 5). Higher scores indicate greater hypercompetitiveness.

The scale first appeared in the Journal of Personality Assessment in 1990, although it has been refined since then. The single most revealing question -- the one that correlated most directly to the hypercompetitive personality -- turned out to be: "Winning in competition makes me feel more powerful as a person." Here are some of the other statements from the scale:

1) If I can disturb my opponent in some way to get the edge of competition, I will do so.

2) I can't stand to lose an argument.

3) I find myself being competitive even in situations which do not call for competition.

4) I compete with others even if they're not competing with me.

These scales are generally for research purposes and not to determine whether someone is fit for a job. In the end, says Ryckman, "it's all pretty simple: The more secure you are in your self and your own abilities, the more you know yourself, the less you feel the need to prove something to others."

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Can't get enough on the subject?

To read more about competitiveness, check out these books:

* "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters," Barbara Kellerman (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). Although hypercompetition is not the subject of this book, it is a recurring theme for many of the leaders that Harvard researcher Kellerman describes.

* "No Contest: The Case Against Competition," Alfie Kohn, (Houghton Mifflin, 1986/1992). Forget about mere hypercompetition, writes writer and education scholar Alfie Kohn: Competition itself, he says, is corrosive and counterproductive in every aspect of human life, from interpersonal relations to business productivity. The title says it all. What Karl Marx was to capitalism, Alfie Kohn is to competition. (Kohn also has a website, www.alfiekohn.org/index.html.

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