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The N-Effect: Competition Goes Up, Motivation Goes Down

Posted Jun 22 2009 11:54pm

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Conventional wisdom has it that one of our mightiest competitive motivators is social comparison: we begin competing with others as soon as we compare ourselves to them. Whether the stakes are minuscule or massive, something in us wants to measure up inch for inch.  

New research published in the journal Psychological Science, however, shows that our competitive urges don’t engorge in a vacuum: the number of people we’re competing against has a direct effect on our motivation to compete. 

Here’s an illustration: Jessica takes a seat in a classroom with 10 other students. She looks around, evaluates the competitive landscape, and determines that her odds of doing well against this small group are good. The instructor passes out the particle physics exam and Jessica is off and running, motivated to score among the best in this class. 

Jason arrives at a different room to take his exam, and it’s a lot bigger than Jessica’s. In fact, it’s ten times as big, and Jason has to find a seat in a crowd of 100 students. He looks around and gulps. There’s no way to realistically compare himself to so many people.  The instructor passes out the exam and Jason begins without feeling a competitive edge.

The lack of motivation that Jason feels, in comparison to Jessica’s hyper motivated resolve, is the N-Effect.  Researchers assessed this effect through a series of five studies: the first examined SAT and CRT (Cognitive Reflective Test) scores in light of how many people took the tests in given venues over multiple years.  Even when controlling for other variables, researchers found a significant inverse correlation between the number of test takers and scores: the more people taking the test, the worse the scores.

Another study examined whether test takers, told to finish the test as quickly as possible, would finish their test faster when competing against 10 others, versus 100.  As predicted, the best scoring testers finished their tests significantly faster when competing against a smaller group. 

Yet another study compared the N-Effect to the effect of ratio bias (which leads people to think that it’s easier to draw one of 10 red jellybeans from a jar of 100 other colors, than to draw only one red jellybean from a jar containing 10 other colors, despite the equal probabilities of both outcomes).  Ratio bias is typically a within-subjects effect, and not a social-group effect, so the study was crafted to separate out the two to determine if the N-Effect would operate independently of ratio bias; as predicted, it does.

Of course, as with all research, there’s a long series of “yeah, buts” attached. The big one in this case is whether a given individual is more or less social-comparison oriented (SCO).  Returning to our imaginary test takers, maybe Jessica is just a hard-core SCO. If she’s in a room with 10 people, she’s a shark. With 100, more of a mullet.  And maybe Jason is a low-SCO soul. It could be that for him being in a room with 10 people wouldn’t be any more or less motivating than 100. 

But even with these individual differences acknowledged, this is still a quite interesting find — one that could yield better educational fruit if taken seriously.

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