How Rivalries Bring Out Our Best — and Worst

Nigel De Jong of the Netherlands tackles Xabi Alonso of Spain during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The New York Times recently argued that the U.S. would be better at soccer if only we cheated more. Like it or not, you have to master the art of the dive to be competitive at the international level, and we seem just a bit reluctant to flop around at just the merest of nudges. This stoicism may come from our Puritan roots, but perhaps having more rivalries (beyond our traditional one with Mexico) would ignite our most effective play, flops and all. New research suggests that rivalries lead people to do whatever it takes to win.

A rivalry is more than just a competition, according to Gavin Kilduff, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business (who’s currently in Rio for the World Cup). It typically emerges when competitors are similar, when they face off repeatedly, and when they’re about evenly matched. When these circumstances are present, they can lend a given competitive event a psychological weight that goes well beyond its tangible stakes.

Kilduff has found that rivalry increases both effort and performance. An analysis of competitive runners showed that they shaved more than four seconds per kilometer off their times when a rival was in the same race. In another study, Kilduff and colleagues found that NCAA basketball teams play stronger defense — a good measure of hustle — when competing against rivals. He believes that accentuating rivalry is a good tool for success when a task is effort-based and when there isn’t much leeway for cutting corners. It increases motivation, and “Motivation,” he says, “is a holy grail of management.” Rivalry also increases group cohesion: Universities with more intense rivalries receive donations from more of their alumni, and patriotism is never so great as it is during the World Cup.

But Kilduff and collaborators have conducted several studies, some of them presented recently at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, showing that rivalry also has a dark side: It increases unethical behavior.

In one experiment, subjects who were asked to recall a personal rival, compared with those who recalled a recent competitor who wasn’t necessarily a rival, scored higher on a scale measuring Machiavellianism, rating greater agreement with items such as “Never tell someone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so.” Merely thinking about a rival increases unethical tendencies, and does so strongly enough to move the dial on what’s considered a stable personality trait.

And rivalry springs up quite easily. “In any kind of competitive environment where people are pitted against each other, you’ve got the conditions in place for it to develop,” Kilduff says. To test this idea, he had subjects perform competitive typing tests against simulated opponents on the computer. All subjects were made to win two of the four contests, but some faced the same opponent all four times and won by smaller margins. These close, repeated competitions induced a stronger sense of rivalry, and in turn increased scores on the Machiavellianism scale. The subject’s personalities shifted merely from four non-face-to-face encounters with an anonymous opponent. No prize was even at stake. 

Does rivalry influence actual cheating behavior? In another experiment, subjects who recalled a personal rival rather than a general competitor were — controlling for other factors — five times as likely to cheat on an anagram-solving task. What’s more, the greater the level of friendship with the recalled competitor, the more likely subjects were to cheat. We don’t play dirty against rivals because we hate them. (At least, not always.) We do it because they remind us of ourselves. You don’t want someone beating you at being you.

What’s the mechanism linking rivalry to unethical behavior? Kilduff found that recalling a rival increased subjects’ willingness to use dirty tactics such as espionage and blackmail in preparing for a business negotiation, and that this was explained by greater concerns about status. “It makes sense that we would be concerned about our social standing relative to those close to us in the hierarchy,” Kilduff says. No one’s comparing you with someone far above or below you. It’s your nearest neighbor you have to edge out.

But when you get too fixated on your rivalry with that neighbor, it can lead to harmful myopia. For instance, people have a tendency to choose worse outcomes for themselves if it means a rival will achieve an even worse outcome. Rivalry can also make us overlook non-rivals, which may have allowed Japan to surpass U.S. automakers in the 1980s. And in attempting to best rivals, we can overcommit ourselves. A study by Deepak Malhotra found that people were more likely to bid beyond their predetermined limit at an auction when facing one other bidder (inducing a sense of rivalry) than when facing five.

Status is of great concern when you’re competing in front of thousands — or millions — of people, and so soccer is a useful venue for studying rivalry. In an analysis of nearly 3,000 matches in Italy’s top soccer league, Kilduff and colleagues found that when playing against a team based in the same city as their own, athletes were nearly twice as likely to earn a yellow or red card. This finding fits an earlier report, by Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson, that British soccer players had higher levels of testosterone before matches against their biggest rival. Testosterone is correlated with status-striving as well as aggression.

Due to early team eliminations, many of the largest soccer rivalries won’t see the light in this World Cup, but there’s still a chance for an Argentina-Brazil final, or a Germany-Netherlands semifinal. The last time Germany and the Netherlands faced each other in the World Cup, in 1990, they collectively earned seven penalty cards — and two loogies in the hair. For fans of American football who just want to see blood on the field, these are the matches to hope for. The rest of us can pray that the only bodily fluids on display in the World Cup are sweat and tears.

As for the U.S. match against Germany? Maybe it’s not too late to gin up some juice. Beyond grasping for the obvious historical unpleasantness, one way would be to consider the similarities between the two countries. We’re two of the four richest by GDP, and two of the five swilliest by beer consumption. We each have a German coach, and we both have astronauts on the International Space Station rooting for us.

How Rivalries Bring Out Our Best — and Worst