Here's an interesting finding, which is summarized by Kevin Lewis in the Boston Globe Ideas section:

If you've ever had to take a test in a room with a lot of people, you may be able to relate to this study: The more people you're competing against, it turns out, the less motivated and competitive you are. Psychologists observed this pattern across several different situations. Students taking standardized tests in more crowded venues got lower scores. Students asked to complete a short general-knowledge test as fast as possible to win a prize if they were in the fastest 20 percent completed it faster if they were told that they were competing against 10 people rather than 100. Students asked how fast they would run in a race for a $1,000 prize if they finished in the top 10 percent said they would run faster in a race against 50 people rather than 500. Similarly, students contemplating a job interview or Facebook-friending contest said they would be less competitive if they expected more competitors - even if "winning" only required finishing in the top 20 percent. The authors conclude that competitiveness was curtailed because the larger the group, the more difficult it is to compare oneself directly to others.

Here's the original paper, which also shows that SAT scores fall as the average number of test-takers at a particular venue increases. I'd suggest that this phenomenon - people are intimidated by too many competitors - is related to another well-documented psychological phenomenon: excessive choice. Consider some of the work done by Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia University. In 2000, she set up a booth in an upscale supermarket with a variety of gourmet jams and jellies, all of which scored about equally well in taste tests. Sometimes, her booth showcased 6 different jams, and sometimes it had 24 different jams. Economists assume that more choices lead to increased consumption, since everyone can try out the different jams and find their favorite. (They can maximize their subjective utility.) But when Iyengar increased the number of jams on display, purchases of jam decreased dramatically. When her booth only had 6 different jams, 30 percent of people who stopped by the both ended up buying one of the varieties. However, when she put 24 different jams on display, only 3 percent of people bought a product. All the possibilities short-circuited the brain.

What does this have to do with competition and the number of competitors? In both instances, the brain is easily overwhelmed and intimidated. It can't figure out which jam is the best, and so it shuts down and moves on. Likewise, when it knows that it won't win the competition - they are just too many competitors - the mind is less willing to put in the effort. (This, of course, contradicts one of the implicit assumptions of modern capitalism, which is that more competition makes everybody better.) We save up our mental energy for a task that we might actually win, and for food products that don't require so much cognitive effort.

But don't despair: Iyengar has recently published a study showing that one way to combat the effects of excessive choice is to group items into categories. It turns out that even useless and arbitrary categories make people happier with their choices.

61 college students were led into one of two simulated magazine stores. Each "store" had the same 144 magazines, but those in the first store were grouped into three categories, using plaques on the shelves. Magazines in the second store were separated into 18 categories, like "computing," "crossword" and "bridal." When the students were later asked to estimate the variety of magazines available, those who visited the second store gave higher answers than those who visited the first store.

In another study, students who chose from a coffee menu liked their choices better when the menu grouped the coffees into categories, even if the names were meaningless -- for example, "Lola's."

I'd suggest that one simple way to erase the effect of excessive competition is to have people take tests in small rooms, and not great big lecture halls. (I'll never forget the deflating feeling of taking an organic chemistry final in a classroom full of 550 sweating pre-med students.) The subdivisions can be arbitrary and meaningless, but they might make people less frightened by the prospect of all their competitors. Here's the dispiriting takeaway: when the brain gets intimidated - and it can be intimidated by too many jams or too many people - it typically doesn't try harder. It just shuts down.

One follow-up experiment I'd like to see is whether or not professional competitors, be it chess grandmasters or Olympic athletes, are less vulnerable to this effect. Perhaps they're turned on by the prospect of defeating 500 strangers? What do you think?


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Re: competition in large groups: Maybe we are conditioned by sweepstakes culture? I can't think of any situation in real life where you're competing against a large group of people and they reward the top ten or twenty percent of contestants. Usually their is one big winner, or maybe first, second, and third place. It could be simply habitual reaction to the large group size, which in almost every real-life instance of competing in a large group provides terrible odds of winning. Even though the rules have been changed to make your odds better, you still react the same way.

By shannon Murphy (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

I feel this way when I watch the news. The world is too big for me and I have to shut it out or I become overwhelmed. I've learned to pick one issue, or one place, or to somehow limit my focus to avoid tuning out altogether.
As for professional competitors, I wonder whether they only consider a handful of other competitors as their real competition and filter out the rest?

I agree that it may simply be an accurate assessment of slim success given a large group.

But I also wonder if this phenomenon could also be related to diffusion of responsibility. People may feel a decreased sense of responsibility or commitment even to their own goals in these large settings. Is it genuine intimidation or more like self-fulfilling prophecy?

By Fell Gray (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

"One follow-up experiment I'd like to see is whether or not professional competitors, be it chess grandmasters or Olympic athletes, are less vulnerable to this effect. Perhaps they're turned on by the prospect of defeating 500 strangers? What do you think?"

I'd venture to guess that this would lend credibility to the use of categories as helpful. Chess players are only playing one opponent at a time. Olympic athletes are not competing against 500 other athletes for a gold medal. The competition in these scenarios comes in stages, like at professional poker tournaments. And I'd also venture to guess that many athletes focus on only one or two of their top competitors rather than the whole field. Team sports create an "us versus them" mentality that breaks a huge number of athletes into just two categories. That would make sense to me.

Chess grand master will play simultaneous games against a number of opponents.

I don't know whethere 500 grand masters can be found. If they are lesser players, the grand master will just butcher them. 500 games simultaneously is also extremely tiresome because the GM would have to walk a long way and stand for a long time. That would be a severe disadvantage.

From the point of competition... I don't know.

A chess grandmaster may be playing a number of people at a time, but each game only has one opponent. I stick by my contention that it's easily divided into manageable categories.
At any given moment, he knows exactly where he stands in each game.

Looking at this statement -- This, of course, contradicts one of the implicit assumptions of modern capitalism, which is that more competition makes everybody better --It seems to me to be fairly straightforward when you think about it for most people are not the rugged individualists of our own myths. When there is too much competition, or too many choices, we would be like an animal where, if there is less chance of getting water from the watering hole, who may just move on to a different watering hole, where the odds are better.