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Is competition always a good thing?

  • Date

    Wed 29 Jan 20

Race starting line

Competition is central to modern life and individual competitiveness can be a useful motivation. But do we really understand it and how can we maximise the benefits?

Professor Timo Jütten hopes to answer these questions and many more in the first over-arching, interdisciplinary study of competition and competitiveness.

Funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership Award, the four-year study will harness Essex’s strengths in the humanities and social sciences, and draw on expertise from sport scientists, as well as the EssexLab, to create a comprehensive study and new findings.

“Competition and the psychological disposition to be competitive seep into almost every aspect of our lives, for instance in markets, sports, education and social status,” explained Professor Jütten from the School of Philosophy and Art History, “and our experiences of them are becoming more intense.”

“We have a tendency to think that when we understand one form of competition, we understand them all but they are all very different, and the effects on society and individuals can be positive or negative.”


Professor Timo Jütten
"Competition can be a good thing if everyone gains but very often it requires some to lose. By understanding it better, and developing standards, we can ensure that the benefits are maximised while the costs are minimised."
Professor Timo Jütten  school of philosophy and art history

Working with historians and social scientists, Professor Jütten seeks to understand different aspects of competition and competitiveness and how they work in different social situations. The research team, which will include three postdoctoral researchers and a PhD student, will also explore the sources of competition and competitiveness, and develop guiding standards that could be used to govern them.

Professor Jütten said: “What you often hear in society is that competition is good because it improves choice and outcomes for people. But does it improve choice and outcomes for people for all, or just for some?

“Competition can be a good thing if everyone gains but very often it requires some to lose. By understanding it better, and developing standards, we can ensure that the benefits are maximised while the costs are minimised.”

Professor Jütten, who is especially interested in how social class and aspiration relate to competitiveness, will begin the project by bringing together existing knowledge, about competition across disciplines. A later phase will see the researchers carrying out experiments in the EssexLab.

“The infrastructure and expertise in the EssexLab, as well as Essex’s proud tradition in social sciences, make the possibilities for this project very exciting.”

Professor Jütten will talk about the ethics of competition in his Professorial Inaugural Lecture on 10 February.