Competition- Barb or Boost to Brainpower?

Researchers suggest that social competition may be the reason for bigger brains and few disagree with that scientific evidence. My question is, in addition to increased cranial capacity, what ethical influences do competitions play in human minds?

Brain gurus such as David Geary show positive proof of growth through competition. Any negatives though, to smack-down-matches you’ve observed lately? 

Does peer rivalry increase antagonism or foster benefits from where you stand?

We know from neurogenesis that people improve their lot by beliefs moved into winning tasks. We also know that competition reshapes human brains when people act to improve. How so?

Run that extra mile, write a finer essay, rebuild a better prototype, swim faster, and you literally reshape your brain chemically and electrically for higher intelligence.  Even simple competitions, can alter brainwaves up or down. The jury’s still out however, if competition adds or reduces brainpower for a more successful life.

Research is sobering. Scientists suggest, for instance, that constant Facebook, Twitter and Bebo rivalry, can actually decrease attention spans, foster instant gratification, and encourage self-centered communications. Through competitions for followers, or one-up-ship news reporting, people reboot their brain to live in the moment. The results over time?

No surprise that competition alters brainpower, yet further investigation may offer fresh insights about negative or positive effects to the human brain.  Benefits dominate some research and yet we’re warned of definitive ways competition can hurt more than help.

Before choosing competition or collaboration consider effects of each on brainpower:

Here are 10 surefire ways to view competition, with the brain in mind.

1. Use tone to build goodwill. Even within competitions,  tone tools open opportunities for life-changing dividends. In healthy rivalry, tone draws success like the moon attracts tides on an ocean shore.

2. Network to enhance wisdom. Fuel your brain with chemical hormones for growth and learning, by planning times ahead to engage others, rather than merely racing against them on a dime.

3. Interact across ages and cultures. Get to know people who differ from you and emulate their diverse offerings. Connect more with people unlike yourself to learn from and value differences.

4. Ask great questions. Listen, then act on hot answers that refire your efforts. To read or hear alone, works less magic in the brain than to act on answers from 2-footed questions.

5. Put feet to new beliefs. Change even deeply held assumptions, when others hold finer ethics up to the rainbow. Weigh differences, in successful results for all.

6. Run from cynics or bullies. Propose competitive solutions to problems raised. Opposite abuse or toxic competitions, lie steps toward peaceful solutions, from multiple intelligences.

7. Link to high performance minds. Build  with those who lead change for improvements. Facilitate innovative minds and lead fixes for broken systems, that trap hebbian thinkers.

8. Engage opposing views. Show strengths in alternative perspectives, by stepping out of comfort zones to embrace unexpected answers that lead to visible improvements.

9. Try new technologies. Rarely is it easy to learn new online skills but each time you step up to a new plate, you stretch and exercise your brain’s working memory for competitive edges.

10. Send growth zingers to peers. Draw from serotonin to affirm competitor’s ideas and share your own insights when appropriate, to offer genuine encouragement.

Overall use smart skills to create online communities that compete, win and grow together. Skeptics and naysayers will always be with you, yet one day offers every chance you’ll need to join brilliant minds who are changing our world through healthy rivalry at the peaks.

Would you agree that competition against self also powers up the brain for consensus and for building together finer realities across one another’s differences?

What’s your take – is competition a barb or a boost to brainpower?

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17 thoughts on “Competition- Barb or Boost to Brainpower?

  1. Pingback: Values Create Climate of Excellence – Brain Leaders and Learners

  2. eweber Post author

    Robyn, I agree and symbols for healthy competition sure differ from symbols of competition that wins at all costs. Similarly, healthy collaboration looks different from tenacious clinging to others.

    I’m not sure we always differentiate when we consider these, but perhaps we should since they differ vastly. Agree?

  3. Robyn McMaster

    Ellen, how we frame ideas with language is important. And even if we go back to pictures before symbols were developed to stand for ideas, I’m sure the pictures of competition and teamwork would look very different as well.

  4. eweber Post author

    Robyn, you speak for many of us who love what we do, want to excel at the peaks, and who have learned the value of teams! having teamed internationally with you — I have to say that you teach us all how to do it well!

    Still, as I read your words I reflect on the words for competition and the words for collaboration or consensus building. Would you agree the words differ for each, when they work especially well?

    Hmmmm… What do you think?

  5. Robyn McMaster

    I was always a competitive person. I loved to win. However, I did not realize the toll it took. It often raised my stress levels and many times I felt angry within if I was not the winner. That was shooting cortisol throughout my system and in the long run that was horrible for my brain and my overall health. I have since learned to go for the best and keep stretching myself and to find more serotonin through the pleasure of working with excellence. Winner does not always “take all.”

  6. eweber Post author

    Thanks John, for the positive ways you help people to regain neuron pathways to move forward. For those who slid back farther for whatever reason it takes longer, and for others who are well ahead of their era, they’ll often get smacked down by slow moving main streams. Key is to work together with other leaders who help folks out of eddies and back into the flow! Those leaders inspire us all! Thanks!

  7. eweber Post author

    YES! What I find intriguing here Mary Jo, is that I find similar responses about using good tone skills into both competition and collaboration.

    Many leaders we certify in brain based approaches to leadership – admit to having keen desire to communicate across differences for mutual benefits.

    Once folks look at brain’s equipment they already possess they are dynamite across cultures, genders, ages and background differences:-)

    So glad to meet others in similar work as it will move firms into the future – while building more caring communities at the same time.

    No wonder we love the work we do!

  8. Mary Jo Asmus

    Hi Ellen,

    I’ve enjoyed watching this conversation. In regards to your questions in #4:

    Human relationships are so complex and messy – making your question about HOW to use competition or collaboration important. Another good insight. As an executive coach, this is often becomes a topic of the work I do with my clients. Interestingly, I would say that most clients need and want to bring more collaboration into their leadership, so this is often where we work. Competition seems to come much more naturally, and is more frequently the skill that is overdone.

    Main clients are senior leaders in organizations – public, nonprofit and government (and some work at university with faculty and administrators.) Keep in touch! MJ

  9. JohnB

    I can agree that it also how we learn from one another – are you aware of the use of propanalol as a means of breaking the adrenalin positive feedback loop?

    There is a great deal to read and learn from the link you provided. Another excellent avenue of obtaining similar results via a non-clinical type world can be obtained from visiting

    We are attempting to apply what we understand of that in the present through our initiative.

  10. eweber Post author

    Thanks John, I agree. You make a great case for the differences each person brings to any table, and those experiences factor into the brain’s hard-wiring in very real ways for each person.

    Some will experience traumas that others escape in early years, while others meet tough times far later in life.

    Luckily, and because of amazing neuro-discoveries we are learning how to alter the human brain’s chemical and electrical circuitry – and that is really my own area of brain based practices.

    For instance you might enjoy several articles on rewiring the human brain that are listed at

    The human brain has revealed a great deal about itself through modern technologies and yet it takes each of us to apply it and test these findings as we move forward. Furthermore, we will often come to different conclusions about what works best – and that is a good thing:-) It’s also how we learn from one another along the way. Agree?

  11. JohnB

    Not sure how you see that – those of us who have survived in some sense the traumas of religious belief experience this in a very real sense as we escape further from the mental tracks and safeguards laid down in our childhoods. This would not be possible if our minds were a fixed environment. Religious upbringing does lay a bed of confusion and that restricts the use we make of the left side of our brains (part or whole) – some describe their re-connection with that part of themselves as hearing and experiencing what sounds like fine crystals sparkling and clinking together – no magical experience other than a pleasant sound – simply re-connecting what we had to deny to ourselves in order to survive.

  12. eweber Post author

    Thanks for sharing your insights John, it’s usually a good idea to see what’s going on inside the brain in these situations – because people have far more mental equipment than most realize. No point leaving in research jargon – what can become practical tools for leading and learning well:-)

  13. JohnB

    Great article and a great booster – we deal with clergy abuse and to find something which I see as giving 9.5 out of ten ticks to our approach is something many of us will grasp onto with all the survival power we can muster.

    6. Run from cynics or bullies. >>> perhaps engage – our experience says it is this sector which hold power and sway – you must engage them if that is where your problem lies.

  14. eweber Post author

    Bravo Mary Jo, what an interesting observation and I agree that I too see both act more like brain busters than enablers:-)

    Would you agree that it’s not only when to use – but how to use:-)?

    I agree that we should continue to look for that open door to bring together what we do. Our 3 main populations include: 1). Business or Organizational Leaders (Decision Makers and Top Executives); 2). University Faculty and Administrators; 3). Secondary School Faculty and Administrators).


  15. Mary Jo Asmus

    Ellen, nice answer to my question on the earlier post!

    Your response may have some really interesting implications for leadership. I have seen competition get in the way of great results in organizations. And I’ve also seen collaboration get in the way. The trick is for leaders to know when to use which. As well as how much of each to use (both collabortion and competition can be strengths in the right situation and context, but both can also be overused, in which case they can cause problems).

    Sigh. Leadership is so complex. Your post, and learning about the brain, adds so much to the thinking in this arena. Thanks. And lets keep in touch and perhaps find a way to work together in the future.

  16. Ellen Weber

    Thanks for stopping by Joe, and I am intrigued with your take here. Interesting – and it makes sense, yet I have a question:-)

    Would you agree that it’s also a matter of how one measures favorable and unfavorable outcomes? For instance one person might compete to win and even scoop others and call that “favorable” while another may support colleagues along the way – regardless of victories gained personally in the competition.

    What about the idea of competing aganist self and then recording strides made along the way. Is that a constant favorable, as you see it?

    See Joe, your nudges already have us into deeper water:-) Thanks!

  17. Joe Williams

    Interesting post, Ellen. I’d say that competition with favorable outcomes – either measureable improvement or victories – would boost brainpower. Those with unfavorable outcomes would tend to demoralize and decrease brainpower.

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