April 29, 2010
Competition Or Rewards More Important?

Does the possibility of winning and losing drive competitive people more than the rewards for winning?

Whether it’s for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.

That’s the finding of neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis, who tested 31 randomly selected subjects with word games, some of which had monetary rewards of either 25 cents or 75 cents per correct answer, others of which had no money attached.

Personality tests were used to measure competitiveness and the degree to which each subject was driven by monetary rewards. But on trials where no rewards were offered the competitive personalities did even better than in trials where rewards were offered.

But the researchers found a paradoxical result: The performance of the most reward-driven individuals actually was most improved — relative to the less reward-driven — in the trials that paid nothing, not the ones in which there was money at stake.

Even more striking was that the brain scans taken using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed a change in the pattern of activity during the non-rewarded trials within the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), located right behind the outer corner of the eyebrow, an area that is strongly linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior and cognitive strategies. The change in lateral PFC activity was statistically linked to the extra-behavioral benefits observed in the reward-driven individuals.

One explanation is that competing in trials where rewards were offered got the competitive people into a competitive mood that carried over to other trials.

The researchers suggest that this change in lateral PFC activity patterns represents a flexible shift in response to the motivational importance of the task, translating this into a superior task strategy that the researchers term “proactive cognitive control.”

In other words, once the rewarding motivational context is established in the brain indicating there is a goal-driven contest at hand, the brain actually rallies its neuronal troops and readies itself for the next trial, whether it’s for money or not.

What I wonder: How strong is the link between competitiveness and the desire for rewards? Perhaps competitiveness is most important as a characteristic that drives people to succeed.

Highly competitive people who do not have jobs that allow them to compete probably do not work as effectively as they otherwise would. For someone who gets thrill from winning against others what's needed is an environment where most tasks are competitions, where lots of wins and losses happen every day.

Does a different subset of people feel driven to achieve goals without the need to feel like they are competing against others? Is there a winning orientation separate from a goal achievement orientation?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 April 29 11:56 PM  Brain Economics

arandomperson said at April 30, 2010 6:03 AM:

Competition can be viewed as an aversive motivator of behavior (like electric shock):

read old paper (abstract at: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/36/11/1291/ )

My guess is that the winners were used to winning and those higher-order reinforcers were assoc with other cures at the state of winning. When the money was removed, the reinforcing power of the other cues was more salient (not blocked by the money cues). With the reinforcing powers of the money cues being rather low, the combo of increased alpha (RW saliency) and the low lambdas (reinforcement value) of the other cues produced greater responses then when the highly salient (although with low reinforcement value) money cues 'block' the other cues assoc with winning.

This appears to be reflected in the brain scans.

The "Personality tests were used to measure competitiveness and the degree to which each subject was driven by monetary rewards" would measure how aversive experiencing competition is to a person. A "highly competitive" person does not get the same aversive effect from compeititon as a non-competitive person.

Analgous to the highly extroverted person having a CNS that is harder to stimulate than a highly introverted person.

(oh, that was a quick paragraph; hope it made some sense!)

Tony D said at April 30, 2010 8:30 AM:

I think that while competition is one form of motivation, it is usually corrupt. People who are in it entirely for the competition instead of the rewards may lack some chemical in the brain. If there are no intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, why do it for the competition, unless that has also been represented as an intrinsic reward, ie feeling better that you beat someone, etc. However, in my experience, people who are motivated by competition are missing a huge part of the puzzle.

random said at April 30, 2010 10:14 AM:

My son is insanely competitive (even over small things), and I'm still trying to decide if it's a good thing or not.

Tony D said at April 30, 2010 10:34 AM:

Random: I think it's a good thing overall. My 3 year old is like that, but I'm showing him that his competitiveness should be friendly and not ego-based, but results oriented. Competition is how progress gets made, but if it's all about the competition, some kids will be turned off by that and not get anything done, and others will do it just for that surge in good feelings. Hey, it's a complicated issue, I'm glad science continues to tackle it.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©