Reprinted with kind permission of the author from “NO CONTEST”  -  Houghton Mifflin Company – New York
pag. 143-147


 What is the relationship between competition and aggression? On one level, the question makes little sense since the two are not really distinct phenomena that can be related: competition is a kind of aggression. In the preceding section, I tried to explore what it means to try to beat someone. The arrangement is by its very nature a struggle or (depending on how one uses the word) an aggressive enterprise. Thus Horney was able to write: "Hostility is inherent in every intense competition, since the victory of one of the competitors implies the defeat of the other."
 If there is a connection to be drawn, then, it is only between trying to defeat someone and trying to do him harm beyond what is necessary for victory. The mediator between these two actions presumably would be feelings of hostility - which invariably attend competition at some level. Morton Deutsch writes as follows:
In a competitive relationship, one is predisposed to cathect the other negatively, to have a suspicious, hostile, exploitative attitude toward the other, to be psychologically closed to the other, to be aggressive and defensive toward the other, to seek advantage and superiority for self and disadvantage and inferiority for the other, to see the other as opposed to oneself and basically different, and so on. One is also predisposed to expect the other to have the same orientation.
 Indeed, hostility is practically indistinguishable from intentional competition, so an individual with this orientation will likely seek out competitive encounters. To this extent, the act of competition can be a consequence of hostility. But social scientists have been more concerned with the reverse proposition - the question of whether competition leads people to feel more hostile and  ultimately, to act more aggressive.   
Once upon a time, theorists speculated that participation in or controlled exposure to competitive sports or other aggressive behavior would drain off one's reservoir of aggression. This came to be known as the "catharsis" theory, after Aristotle's notion that one can be purged of unpleasant emotions by watching tragic dramas. Freud and the ethologist  Konrad  Lorenz were two of the chief proponents of this view, and it is not a coincidence that both believed aggression was innate rather than learned and spontaneous rather than reactive: we naturally need to vent our aggressions, and it is best to do so where it can do little harm, such as by playing sports. The substitutive satisfaction of competition thus was said to reduce aggression.
 There are few beliefs so widely held by the general public that have' been so decisively refuted by the evidence. The catharsis theory by now has no leg to stand on, particularly with respect to the question of sports. Even Lorenz told an interviewer in 1974 that he had developed "strong doubts whether watching aggressive behavior even in the guise of sport has any cathartic effect at all." And the wellknown psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim conceded that "competitive or spectator sports ..... raise aggressive feelings of competition to the boiling point”.
 Watching others be aggressive does not discharge our own aggressiveness. What seems to happen instead is straightforward modeling: We learnto be aggressive. Our restraints against aggression are lowered.

Whatever explanation we devise for this effect, however, one study after another has failed to show any catharsis effect.
. Athletes were found to become more aggressive over the course of a season, as measured by personality tests. Another study found the same thing for high school football players.
· Third graders who were frustrated by experimenters did not become any less aggressive when they engaged in aggressive play afterward. (On the other hand, those children who had the frustrating behavior explained to them became significantly less aggressive.)
· Elementary-school-aged boys were more likely to shove or hit their peers if they had watched a boxing film.
· A cross-cultural study revealed that "where we find warlike behavior we typically find combative sports and where war is relatively rare combative sports tend to be absent. This refutes the hypothesis that combative sports are alternatives to war as discharge channels of accumulated aggressive tension." If the catharsis theory were true, sports and war would be  inversely related
across cultures in fact they are directly related.
Those social scientists who have reviewed or conducted the research on catharsis speak with one voice. "Innumerable studies of aggression in children have illustrated that attempts to reduce aggression through the use of aggressive and vigorous play therapy have the opposite effect.... Sports participation may heighten aggressive tendencies," says one. "Engaging in aggressive sports or observing aggressive sports ... typically lead[s] to increased rather than decreased aggression," says another."Participation in competitive, aggressive sports ... may more rightfully be viewed as a disinhibition training that ultimately promotes violent reactions," says a third. And from yet another source: "The balance of evidence . . . is that sports involvement may heighten arousal, produce instances of aggressive behaviors and their reward, and provide a context in which the emulation of such behaviors is condoned.
Faced with such evidence, proponents of competition can no longer use catharsis to justify the aggressiveness of sports. Their last refuge is, as usual, the myth of "human nature." Michael Novak, for instance, Asserts that "the human animal is a warlike animal" and that sports merely "dramatize conflict." But whether or not we are unavoidably aggressive - and the data suggest that we are not - one cannot argue in good faith that sports merely dramatize conflict. The studies demonstrate that athletic competition not only fails to reduce aggression, as catharsis theory would predict, but actually encourages it. This is not really surprising given that sport represents a kind of circumscribed warfare - something pointed out not only by such critics as George Orwell, who called it "war minus the shooting, but also by generals: It was Wellington who said that the battle of Waterloo was "won on the playing fields of Harrow and Eton." It was Douglas MacArthur who said: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory." And it was Eisenhower who said that "the true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war The point is not that athletes will rush to enlist, but that athletic competition both consists in and promotes warlike aggression.
There have been numerous anecdotal and experimental accounts of the relationship between violence and sports, but probably the most famous investigation was the series of studies conducted between 1949 and 1954 by Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues.

In the so-called "Robbers' Cave" experiment (named after the area of Oklahoma where it took place), the researchers took a group of normal eleven- and twelve-year-old boys at a Boy Scout camp and divided them into two teams. These teams, the Rattlers and the Eagles, lived for three weeks in separate cabins and were pitted against each other, in such competitive games as baseball, football, and tug-of-war - with prizes for the winning team. The hypothesis was that situations where one group could be successful only at the expense of the other (i.e., competition) would promote generalized hostility and aggressive acts This is exactly what happened. The boys began taunting and insulting each other, in some cases turning against good friends who were now on the opposing team. They burned each other's banners, planned raids, threw food, and attacked each other after the games and al night. It is important to realize that there was no difference between the members of the two teams; they were in all respects homogeneous. Only the fact of structural competition can account for this hostility.
The practice of dividing children into teams for a series of competitive encounters is still common in summer camps. These teams often are identified by colors, and the affair is aptly known as "Color War." It is a dreadful spectacle, a study in humiliation and rage, which I witnessed over several years as a camp counselor. Even very young children understand that the only thing that matters during the War is the relative standing of their team. Everything must be sacrificed for the Blues or Whites, and fervent loyalties develop as soon as the arbitrary team assignments are announced. Erstwhile friends on the other side are now met with a coldness that often erupts into nastiness. In the camp where I worked, the competition extended beyond sports: writing cheers and participating in a sort of quiz bowl insured that nonathletic youngsters, too, could use their skills in rivalrous fashion. (Indeed, one regularly finds hostility boiling up in chess matches, interscholastic debates, and any other sort of recreational competition one cares to mention. Athletes have no patent on aggression.)
Competition does not promote aggression merely on the part of participants. Fan violence is a frequent companion to sports, from high school students pelting the opposing team's bus with rocks to the death of three hundred soccer fans in a 1964 brawl in Peru. In 1971, sixty-six people died in similar fashion in Glasgow; in 1985, it was thirty-eight in Brussels. Looting and rioting regularly occur in V.S. cities following a hometown victory in the Super Bowl or World Series. After each such incident, pundits and political leaders scratch their heads and try to imagine what could have caused such "senseless" behavior. The Brussels riot, begun by Liverpool youths, produced hypotheses ranging from alcohol to the British character. The one cause that was not considered was the effect of competition itself. In any case, the frequency of such behavior on the part of fans again disproves the catharsis theory. "There are so many cases of spectators becoming violent as a result of an emotionally pitched game," says Terry Orlick, "that we have to wonder why the notion persists that the viewers will lessen their aggressive inclinations by seeing the game. Clearly someone forgot to tell these fans that watching highly competitive or aggressive sports is supposed to subdue their aggressive tendencies."

It would be a mistake to confine a discussion of competitively inspired  aggression to sports. Games, after all, are supposed to matter less than  the rest of life; they are offered as something playful and fun. In  other arenas, where competition is in deadly earnest, there may be  fewer displays of brute violence but there is at least as much hostility.  Joseph Wax's reflections on education are worth quoting at length:
One must marvel at the intellectual quality of a teacher who can't  understand why children assault one another in the hallway, playground,  and city street, when in the classroom the highest accolades are  reserved for those who have beaten their peers. In many subtle and  some not so subtle ways, teachers demonstrate that what children learo  means less than that they triumph over their classmates. Is this not  assault? ... Classroom defeat is only the pebble that creates widening  ripples of hostility. lt is self-perpetuating. lt is reinforced by peer censure,  parental disapprovai, and loss of self-concept. If the classroom is a  model, and if that classroom models competition, assault in the hallways  should surprise no one.” 

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