By Riya Ranjan

The motivation to one-up our peers. The drive to do our best. The initiative we take to succeed. These are all byproducts of the competitive culture experienced in our day to day lives. Competition provokes our need to ace every test, seize every opportunity and relentlessly pursue our goals. It is the one mental factor that constantly pushes us towards success and simultaneously, the one factor that is a leading cause of stress, anxiety and depression. Regardless of how it presents itself, competition is an integral part of modern day society — and is a key motivating factor for people across the United States.

The Science Behind It

The science of the psychology behind the “competitive mindset” explains why competition has such a high correlation with achievement. Over the last decade, scientists have conducted extensive research on what exactly fuels the competitive nature of humanity. In a study done by psychologists at Princeton University, a majority of the students participating in the “Do-It-Dark” campaign, an energy conservation contest for students across Ivy League schools, were all seen to exhibit similar behavior patterns during the competition. This behavior pattern showed that during the competition, the students’ energy levels and brain activity were much higher than during a regular school day, and almost as soon as the competition was over, their brain activity decreased back to “normal levels.” Dr. Sander Linden, who helped conduct this study, attributes this behavioral change to “extrinsic incentives.”

“A ‘competition,’ by its very nature, is what psychologists call an ‘extrinsic incentive.’ Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behavior or decision is sourced externally rather than internally,” Linden said. “A fundamental characteristic, and downside, of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained. In our example, students stopped saving energy as soon as the competition ended.”

Behavioral Changes in Princeton Students.

This graph depicts Dr. Linden’s data of the changes in behaviors and brain activity before, during and after the competition. The trend in the graph shows that the brain activity and energy usage increased during the competition, and almost immediately decreased afterward.  

(Wikimedia Commons, Linden Sander)

Dr. Linden’s study essentially showed that when the incentive for competition was maintained, students had drastically different behavior, marking “competitiveness” as the main factor involved with their decision making. Dr. Linden’s study also concludes that when people are placed into a competitive environment, their brains function at a higher rate, offering an explanation for the high correlation between competition and accomplishment.

Competition at Monta Vista

The response we have to the stimulus of competition is a fundamental part of human biology, ingrained into genetics and imbued within psyche — and it is no stranger to the students of MVHS. Senior Nandini Sarkar gives her perspective on the competitive culture at MVHS and the impact that it has had on students throughout her time here.

“I feel like just the general expectation is for everyone to do well in school here. Everyone sees MVHS as a really competitive, really high achieving school — so people are like, ‘Oh, if everyone else around me is doing well, then I need to [do] good as well,’” Sarkar said. “I feel like students feel like, in order to get into a good college, they have to be better than the rest of their peers, and that leads to a lot of competition in school.”

The competitive culture at MVHS that Sarkar references corroborates the findings from Dr. Linden’s study. In such a competitive environment, where students are solely focused on getting into a good college, the level of competition and stress will be very high, since the extrinsic incentive of competition is present at all times.

As Sarkar noted, the external expectations combined with the need to get into a prestigious university contribute to an almost unhealthy level of competition for the students. While a little competitive spirit had a positive impact on the students at Princeton, Sarkar references the effect that the perpetual competitive nature at MVHS can have on the students, in a more conflicting light.

“[The competitive nature of MVHS] is mostly negative because, not just me, but a lot of people around me as well, they get super stressed about school,” Sarkar said. “I think one time in physics, like right before a test, [my friend and I] were studying and she was wondering how to do one problem, and I was like, ‘Oh if I help her, she might be able to do the problem too, and that would raise the curve.’ But then I realized that was kind of stupid, so I helped her anyways, but it made me feel bad that I even thought about doing that.”

The competitive nature of MVHS not only has an impact on students personally but according to sophomore Annabelle Choi, can also contribute to toxic dynamics within friendships, as the level of academic stress and competition increases. Choi talks about her views on the competitive culture and how it’s almost forced upon the students at MVHS.

“I think what happens is that it’s not necessarily that you want to compare yourself to other people, but you end up having to compare yourself for like your test scores and what you accomplish,” Choi said. “You get more involved in other people’s lives in general, like people want to know more about what other people got [on a test] and what do you ‘do.’ It’s like people become more nosy, in a bad way.”

The negative aspects of the competition affect a lot of the students, even ones who aren’t conscious of it. Choi’s experience portrays some of these detrimental effects of the competition at MVHS, an idea which many other students can confirm is true. In a recent poll taken of the student body, 65 percent of students agreed that the competitive culture definitely has a negative impact on them, many citing peer pressure as well as stress and anxiety as the main effects. However, those same students also noted that the competitive culture has a positive impact as well, as 66.1 percent of the students said that the effects of the competitive nature pushed them to do better in school and accomplish their goals.

Guidance counselor Sylvia Lam, who has been at MVHS for over a decade, also has substantial experience with both the competitive culture at MVHS and helping students cope with its effects.

“It’s always good to have healthy competition where students compete against each other, but in a way where they still are able to collaborate and work together. I think what we don’t want to see is when the competitiveness gets to the point where it becomes just unhealthy for the students and the environment — and I think I’ve seen both here,” Lam said. “I think what students need to see is that: What is it that we want for ourselves at the end of the day? I think that it’s really important to keep everything in perspective and always look at the bigger picture.” [insert caption]   

Lam’s insight also displays that the competition at MVHS may be somewhat misguided. While many students are solely focused on their grades in order to get into Ivy Leagues or prestigious UCs, Lam says that academics aren’t what colleges are mainly looking for.

I think there’s a lot of information out there that’s misinformation — we deal with college admissions people directly, so we really do know what they’re looking for,” Lam said. “They really want high school to be an opportunity where students are learning and they’re enjoying that process of learning, and not just focusing on academic skills, but soft skills, like how to talk to people and how to develop friendships and relationships. That’s key when you go out to the workforce.”

According to Lam, while the academic stress that students feel at MVHS contributes to the astounding academic record of many kids, this may not be the right way for students to align themselves towards colleges. Universities look for many qualities beyond just good grades and a stellar SAT score, which implies that the competition at MVHS may be a stress factor for all the wrong reasons. Lam notes that she emphasizes that students should be comfortable with who they are and look at the big picture of life, rather than the small bubble of high school.

Competition In the Real World

Like it or not, competition is a factor that exists everywhere. While the culture at MVHS is arguably unhealthy, the need for some amount of competition is unquestionable. Life is about learning to cope with this competition, and discovering who we are along the way, pushing ourselves to be our best, and leading us to success. Keeping up with the competition is important, but allowing it to become a detriment to our health is destructive. As we continue to learn and evolve as students, we should try to put the extrinsic incentives on the back burner, and make sure that we look at what’s inside first.

Header image illustration by Fiona Luo.

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