Winners and Losers
July August September 1999

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"Anything you can do I can do better,
I can do anything better than you!"

I switched on my television set while trying toRosie O'Donnell decide on a topic for this essay. There was Rosie O'Donnell engaged in a "name that tune" contest with a member of the studio audience. I switched to an investigative report about "bank bandit barriers" (which are small entranceways to banks that have metal detectors and automatically lock both behind and in front of a potential robber if sufficient metal is detected). I switched channels again and came upon a Seattle Mariner baseball game.

It struck me that central to each of these was a concern about winning or avoiding losing (which are complementary but different efforts). Then it occurred to me that this is true for a very large part of what we see on television and, for that matter, of all we see, hear, say and do.

The number of such efforts in our lives to win or avoid losing is absolutely enormous:
  • Competitive sports
  • Political races
  • Courtship rivalries
  • Buying and selling
  • Dealing with threats of punishment
  • The lottery and other gambling
  • Cops and robbers
  • "Cowboys and Indians"
  • Business competition
  • The "rat race"
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • The struggles between:
    • Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland
    • North Koreans and South Koreans
    • Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese
    • Hutus and Tutsies in Ruanda
    • Kosovo Serbs and Albanians
    • Iraqis and Iranians
    • Israelis and Palestinians
    • NATO and Yugoslavia
  • The race to the moon
  • Television networks competing for viewers
  • Investors competing for profits
  • Siblings competing for limited "love supplies" (we call it "sibling rivalry")
  • Students competing for grades
  • "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy"
  • "The Peoples' Court" and "Judge Judy"
  • Road rage
  • Our adversarial legal system
In addition we engage in a plethora of contests (the Internet is full of them), such as beauty contests, "The Great Chili Cookout," and the Publishers Clearinghouse. In many stores, cashiers win bonuses if they catch someone using a credit card that isn't their own. Even Christianity, much lauded for its solicitude, involves a struggle against Satan, against temptation (in other words, against one's self), against heathens, and so on. What I think is notable beyond the ubiquity of such win-lose situations is that they are very often actually sought out rather than avoided.

I have belabored all this to really bring home to you that our lives are hugely concerned with winning and losing: We structure our lives at school, at work, at play and in our personal lives as contests, battles, struggles or wars, in which someone wins, but someone also loses. (Or if my fight is against myself, when I win I also lose). Our preoccupation is reflected in the ubiquity of such themes on television, in the movies, theater, opera, ballet, books, music, etc.

In my view, one of the most importantAlfie Kohn books I've ever read is about just this subject. It's Alfie Kohn's 1986 book, "No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why We Lose In Our Effort To Win)." Kohn reviews a vast amount of research on competition. He finds that it is neither more productive nor more enjoyable than cooperation. Instead of building character, as is often claimed, he finds that it most likely leads to people going "outside the boundaries that have been established to delimit acceptable ways to win" (p 159). In other words, it leads us to cheat. He concludes that competition is actually "devastating to individuals and society" and, moreover, that it is not an "unavoidable part of 'human nature.'"

Since we seem to confuse winning and succeeding, I want to differentiate them here: Succeeding is the achieving of a desired outcome through striving. Winning is a specific subset of succeeding in which my success is the outcome of struggling against or trying to surpass someone else. In other words, winning involves succeeding at someone else's expense: When I'm promoted and get the raise or get accepted by the college of my choice, someone else has been denied and so loses out.

It strikes me then that since the struggle to win is a struggle against someone, to that degree it is necessarily an effort devoid of care and has no genuine life-enhancing value. In competitive sports, for instance, whether someone wins or loses a tennis match or tournament will have no genuine life-enhancing value. In fact, I suggest that by their very nature win-lose efforts are significantly life- and love-devaluing.

I think that this is clearly exemplified by the adversarial legal system. The prosecution and the defense struggle against one another, purportedly to discover the truth. However, I think it's become quite evident that in practice they are more likely to be striving to win the jury over to their side (as evidenced by the common use of jury consultants, attempting to change the venue, or trying to get unfavorable evidence ruled inadmissible, all aimed at increasing the likelihood of a more favorable decision for their side, rather than discerning the truth).

In an adversarial legal system as in all efforts to win there is "pressure" for each side to try to gain an advantage over the other in ways not directly related to the contest at hand. This includes "demonizing" and otherwise distracting and pushing the other side off-balance. For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial the defense demonized many of the those who collectedMark Fuhrman and analyzed the evidence (e.g., Barry Scheck's scathing "What about that, Mr. Fong?" with regard to an error Fong had made with the evidence). The defense also demonized detective Mark Fuhrman by focusing on his possible racist attitudes, which further distracted the jury from the massive evidence of Simpson's guilt.

In addition, with its imposition of fines and incarceration as punishment for transgression, the adversarial system also inexorably encourages deception and breeds rage, resentment and a desire for revenge. These lead to still more transgressions just what the system is supposed to prevent.

Further, competition disdains cooperation with and care for one's adversaries and, although it is often praised for encouraging and supporting cooperation with and care for those on one's own side, it often actually leads to and perpetuates jealousies and rivalries between teammates. (How would you feel if you were playing "second fiddle" to someone who gets all the attention, like Michael Jordan?)

The fight over abortion similarly exemplifies the devaluing effects of the struggle to win. As a result of the adversarial stance taken by both sides, the struggle over abortion has become ever more polarized and intensified. This effort to win will inevitably continue to be the occasion for verbal and physical violence. Ironically, it seems to have led some people who claimed to be supporting life to murder other people who were performing abortions.

As long as there are two "sides" struggling against each other, no one side will "win" for long. Whatever gains one side takes pleasure in will give way to losses in the long run.

It seems to me that we are very two-faced about winning and losing. We hear that "it's not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game" and we are encouraged to be "good" losers. But I don't think that anyone really can be a good loser. When I lose, I'm bound to be distressed in direct proportion to how much I wanted to win. Consequently, all that efforts to be a good loser can achieve is a pretense at being glad that the other person has won or at being indifferent about who's won.

On the other hand, we seem to buy into the famous statement of Vince Lombardi who, when he was coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, asserted that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." (This same sentiment was addressed very recently by a student at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, who complained that the school's motto was "success at any cost"). Most of us are convinced that we get the goodies (for instance, the raise, popularity, acceptance into the college we choose, the girl or boy) only when we win.

We seem similarly two-faced about how we feel about cooperation. We often coerce our children to cooperate. ("Now be nice! Share your toys with your brother!") But at the same time we push them into numerous activities in which the essential goal is to win, and we praise them when they participate and criticize them when they don't. As a result, many of us have become cynical about the idea that it doesn't matter whether we win or lose, and are convinced that Lombardi was right.

It seems to me that there is an evolutionary explanation for all this: Before the invention of language, and before our basic needs were as easily satisfied as they are today, the possibility for cooperation was inherently limited. Indeed, there was significant survival value in being competent at winning the competition for the necessities, as well as in the "Alpha-Male" sorting out of who was the strongest and therefore most likely to succeed, survive and perpetuate the species.

More recently, however, language has provided us with a remarkably increased ability to resolve conflict cooperatively instead of competitively. At the same time, societal structures such as the police and fire-fighters, the military, insurance, and the Red Cross and Salvation Army have helped make us seem much less vulnerable and needy and therefore much less threatened by and threatening to each other (albeit, as I've suggested, the police and military, to the degree that they create and maintain sides, also increaseour vulnerability).

Other factors have also made us less threatening to one another, particularly television and speedy travel, which have influenced us profoundly. Before television it was very easy to imagine that people from other cultures particularly those different from ours were less than human and therefore disposable. But television enables us to recognize each other's humanness in the ghetto and the mansion, locally and worlds away to more readily realize that rather than being monsters, others are as vulnerable as we are and embody the same human strivings as we do. Similarly, jet transport, which has made us all tourists and virtually every spot on earth a tourist destination, has permitted us to discover these things first-hand.

The Cost

No War Toys is an organization with roots that go back to the 1960's. In focusing on the effects of war toys, it has shed some very important light on winning and losing. It defines war toys as "playthings which are used to solve conflict, gain power, or win through the use of violence." It tells us that war games teach children: 
  • to create sides
  • to solve disagreements by fighting
  • to "praise and reward the use of violence and physical strength"
  • to "start fights and make enemies"
  • to "make war seem like an OK thing to do"
  • to make some people "seem better than other people" to "make boys seem more important than girls."
  • It's clear to me that at this particular moment in our evolution whenever we create sides that is deal with a situation in a win-lose

    manner and will pay a price greater than whatever benefit may come from it. For instance, the gangster may gain spoils and "power," but pays with ongoing fear of vengeful attack as well as with a reduction in the ability to love and to experience love. Similarly, punishing or demeaning parents push their children away, but end up isolated and starved for love and connection as do their children. The anti-abortion bomber may temporarily slow the pace of abortion, but will ultimately bring about an increased effort on the part of pro-choice people. The improved methods of the counterfeiter simply lead the police to improve their detection methods.
    The win-lose structure has numerous costs. These include: 1) polarizing into "us vs. them, 2) demonizing, 3) shame, 4) mistrust, 5) deceit, 6) scare, 7) resentment, 8) vengefulness, 9) "over-and-over again," 10) addiction, 11) escalation, 12) modeling of violence, 13) obstruction of maturing, and 14) diminished ability to love.

      1. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Conner)Polarizing I call this the "Archie Bunker" syndrome. It includes polarizing into us vs. them, and into the good guys and the bad guys. This strategy might be effective in motivating people to fight an enemy or a competitor, since we're not likely to oppose someone who we see as like us or with us. But an adversarial stance simply invites the opposing side to reciprocate with an opposing adversarial response. So while this may attain short-term gains, it always results in long-term losses that frustrate the gains. I suggest that the never-ending struggles between the Israelis and Palestinians or the Serbians and the ethnic Albanians are examples of this. So too are the struggles of corporations against their competitors or their workers.

        One of the casualties of polarizing into "all of mine is valid and none of yours is" is that neither side is open to recognizing or considering the legitimate desires or qualities of the other. (Consider the last argument you had with your child, spouse or lover.) In the case of commerce, it would be surprising, indeed, if either side were to help potential customers with the truth about its competitor. Consider Avis' slogan "We're number two; we try harder." It asserts, without evidence, that number one (Hertz) doesn't try hard and it obscures the fact that Avis is not the underdog, but part of one of the biggest and richest corporations in the world.

      2. Demonizing   If I'm trying to win, there is significant pressure for me to demean my opponent/competitor/enemy to make the other bad. "We try harder" is just one example of such demonizing. Wendy's famous "Where's the beef" commercial implied again, without evidence that the other hamburger sellers were stingy with their meat.

        Demonizing is an essential strategy during wars. For example, during World War II, the Japanese and German people and soldiers were depicted in Allied lands as subhuman, cruel, and not valuing life. Tojo, Hitler, Goehring and the others in charge of waging war against the Allies were depicted as objects of derision, ridicule and scorn. At the same time, no patriotic person had a moment's concern about the grief of a Japanese or German mother whose father, husband or son was a casualty of the war. In fact, in order for me to be patriotic, I must take sides against the other. On the other hand, if I am deemed unpatriotic, I am seen as unworthy; that is, I am demonized.

      4. Shame The adulation poured on the winner in a sports contest, particularly in a "championship" contest, tends to distract us from recognizing that losses are moments of shame. (the shadow side of Lombardi's "winning is everything"). When Steffi Graff lost to Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon yesterday, she was perceived as a failure, even a has-been. (Yet having lost, she is now rated the second-best female tennis player in the world. That this is hardly a less impressive achievement one which could have been reversed on any given day we completely disregard.) This shame is symbolized by the fact that the loser characteristically receives a much smaller financial prize than the winner does and by the fact that we are much less likely to remember the runner-up than the winner. At the Olympics, for instance, if we remember at all, we are likely to recall who won the gold medal, but not who won the silver or bronze medals.

        I suggest that it was just this shame that motivated many of the people who lost their fortunes in the stock market crash of 1929 to commit suicide.

      6. Mistrust Trust is an early victim of the effort to win. From the perspective of winning and losing, the other person is my enemy, opponent or competitor, and is striving to defeat me: Mistrust is an inescapable consequence. It goes with the territory, then, that I must strive to conceal myself my strategies, desires and discoveries from my opponents. ("You've got to keep your cards close to your vest!") I suggest that this is to everyone's detriment.

      8. Deceit It follows that if I don't trust you and I must win, I cannot safely be truthful with you, I must deceive you. (Does Macy's tell Gimbels?) (Macy's and Gimbels have long been competing department stores in New York City. This expression was often used to assert that competitors don't reveal what they're up to to one another an assertion which was questioned by Santa Claus in the movie Miracle on 34th Street). From the win-lose perspective, it cannot be fathomed that it could actually be of value to be helpful to someone who is trying to defeat me.

      10. Scare A world in which others are opponents or enemies is a scary world. If I have been winning, it's inevitable that I will be scared of losing the reward and regard provided to me as winner. (For example, one Internet CEO, when asked today how he feels about the damage that the competition could do, replied "I wake up scared every day.") On the other hand, if I am losing, I will be scared that I will be ever-deprived of the reward and regard.

      12. Resentment If I am involved in winning and losing, I will inevitably harbor resentment towards both those whom I beat and those who surpass me. I resent those whom I who surpass because they require that I be ever-alert to the possibility that they may overtake me. I resent those who surpass me because, in faring better than me, they deprive me of the goodies that come from winning (money, acclaim, the girl). The Nerd and the Jock resent one another.

      14. Vengefulness Those who lose inevitably seek to "even the score," to get revenge. Since in almost every endeavor there are few winners and many losers, there are many among us who are seeking revenge (or waiting for the opportunity to do so). Consider, for example, road rage, drive-by shootings, shop-lifting and white collar crime.

      16. Over-and-over again When a conflict is "settled" in a way that is not mutually satisfactory, the side or person that views the settlement as a loss will harbor a residue of resentment and shame and a desire for revenge, and will act to "even the score" by defeating those who did the defeating. This is amply evident in the 600 year struggle between the Serbs and the "ethnic" Albanians in Kosovo, or the similarly endless struggles between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the Iraqis and Iranians.

      18. Addictiveness As long as I am caught in the win-lose trap, I must continue to strive. If I am the loser, the only way I can exceed my shame and get the "high" is to continue striving. If I am a winner, the only way I can avoid "coming down" is to continue to win. I think that the fact that many sports stars become involved with drugs even though these are ostensibly a threat to their careers alludes to the addictive character of these people. I suspect, too, that the attempt to avoid coming down is also why sports stars and many "movers" and "shakers" frequently act outrageously in their private lives.

      20. Escalation Escalation prevails in all winning and losing. It is very evident when we look, for instance, at the "contest" between cops and robbers. In counterfeiting, for example, law enforcement's increasing ability to recognize counterfeits has simply led to the counterfeiters using more sophisticated means to counterfeit. In turn, this has led (and, I suggest, will continue to lead) to evenmore sophisticated means to keep counterfeiters from being able to successfully counterfeit. This is true, as well, in the competition between drug traffickers and "narcs." The more sophisticated the means of interdiction have become, the more sophisticated have become the means of avoiding interdiction. The same progression is also evident with regard to weapons of warfare, where through the centuries there has been a steady increase in the power and sophistication of such weapons. At times it was believed that such increases would somehow put an end to war. For example, Albert Nobel expected this would result from his invention of dynamite. It was also thought that the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs would put an end to war. But clearly none of this has made war any less likely and the escalation continues.

      22. Modeling of violence Instead of rendering our lives more loving, winning and losing perpetually provides models of and urgings towards violence. Rather than diminishing violence, it perpetuates and escalates it. (Consider, for instance, the outbreaks of spectator violence at soccer matches.)

      24. Obstruction of maturing When I am hooked into striving to win or to keep from losing, cooperating in searching for solutions seems to mean risking losing; it seems like a weakness. In being locked into striving for solutions through being adversarial, I am kept from recognizing those possible solutions not dictated by winning and losing. Unable to deal with conflict in a genuinely cooperative way (that is, in a mutually respectful search for mutually satisfying solutions without a "hidden agenda" and without attempting or accepting gain at the other's expense), I am robbed of the possibility of discovering and experiencing my genuine connectedness and responsibility to others.

      26. Diminished ability to love Love requires mutual openness. The competitive context makes this openness uncertain, perhaps impossible. In turn, this makes it difficult even impossible for me to recognize whether someone's seemingly kind act comes from care or is part of a strategy to take advantage of me. Since I'm unable to trust, I'm (most often secretly) afraid that the other person's care is not genuine, and that he or she will forsake me when in some way I inevitably fail to "win."

    The way out

    The only way to effectively resolve conflict is for the people involved to cooperate in seeking solutions that are mutually satisfying. This method of resolution has none of the drawbacks of the struggle to win and it is made invisible by the competitive struggle.

    But how can we ever accomplish this if every win-lose transaction increases our level of mistrust and untrustworthiness? Although the answer is very clear to me, I'm not very hopeful that it will ever gain widespread use. But I am confident that there are people discovering it every day.

    I suggest that the first opportunity occurs early in a child's development. A two-year-old's spontaneous response to being hit or to having his or her toy taken away is typically to hit back or to grab back the possession to try to win, rather than dialogue. This is what we mean when we say derisively of adults, "They're fighting like children!

    Some parents may cheer on their aggressive kid. ("You've got to let them know they can't take advantage of you!" "If he hits you, hit him back!" "Be a man!") But the more common parental response to a child's aggression is to hit the child, physically or verbally. ("Bad boy!" "Now play nice!" "I want you to apologize!") Either approach damages the child's ability to mature with regard to striving to get what he wants in a world with others.

    Such a child most likely obeyed his parents' demands for example, to be "good" or polite. Ironically, this performance only masks the child's urge to use force to get what it wants to win. It thus renders the child prone to use force whenever it deems it safe to do so. Consider, for example, the experiments in which a child will coerce another child who is smaller, whenever he or she believes that detection is unlikely. Consider, too, the plethora of religious leaders, such as Jimmy Swaggert, who have paraded themselves before their congregations as next to God, but also secretly cavorted with prostitutes. Or consider evangelists like Peter Popoff, who used modern electronic trickery to convince his followers that he was personally enlisted by God.

    When grown, then, such a child is very unlikely to deal with others in a genuinely cooperative way. Instead, it's likely to get trapped in the win-lose structure in virtually every facet of its life.

    However, the result will be very different if the care givers: 1) avoid punishing or demeaning the child when it attempts to get what it wants by winning; and, instead, 2) engage in the dialogue, beginning with acknowledging and validating howthe child feels. (For example, they might first acknowledge to their child that what the other child did must have hurt or made him or her angry: "That really hurt when Johnny took your toy, didn't it? And you're very angry at Johnny for taking your toy?" Following this, they might share their view non blamefully that there are more effective ways for the child to get what he or she wants, might role-play with their child, might offer to mediate between the two children, etc; and, 3) demonstrate true care by genuinely living out with the child and others in their world the cooperation they prize. Ironically, when violent-win/lose-urges are accepted, the dialogue engaged in and cooperation modeled, such urges to oppose will actually diminish.

    Those of us who didn't grow up with such enlightened parenting are in some ways the "walking wounded." We are more concerned about getting what we want or not losing what we have than about mutual satisfaction. We tend to mistrust others' beneficence and tend to be at-the-ready to manipulate others in order to get what we wantwhen we think we can get away with it. We are perfect recruits for being hooked into winning and losing. Consequently, even when we want to, we are not likely to be able to maintain a cooperative stance for very long, particularly when we have a lot at stake, for example in our relationship with a parent, child or lover.

    We need first to finish our "unfinished business." That is, we need (in a safe "place," of course) to complete our unfinished expressions of pain at being invalidated when we were young (for example, being told not to cry or be angry): Among other things, we need to express our pleas for them to love us instead, as well as to complete the interrupted expressions of our desire to take and have what we want, when we want, undistorted by fear or politeness or other demands. Only then will those desires be acknowledged and validated. Only then will we truly recognize our right to reach out for what we want. And only then will we discover our kinship to others and our genuine concern for their welfare and our desire to shun winning and losing. The most effective means for finishing unfinished business that I know of is the Organic Process, a form of psychotherapy that I've been enthusiastically practicing for 22 years.

    But even if we forgo finishing our unfinished business, we are not helpless. We can still attempt to deal with others cooperatively, to seek to make mutually satisfying agreements. This will require that we learn and practice the dialoguing skills, the major tool for cooperating. However, it will be much more difficult to carry out, since we will find it hard to believe that we can get what we want without competing. In addition, although we might try to shun competitive situations, we will often find these difficult to recognize and, in any case, disturbing to abandon.

    Since dialoguing is the core of cooperation, and since few of us have yet to learn how, I think it's essential that all of us be encouraged to take and pass courses in the communication skills through such devices as income tax deductions and required courses in all public school and university curricula. Essential, too, are university programs and "think tanks" dedicated to searching for, designing and disseminating information about the ways in which governments, companies, families and individuals can deal with one another cooperatively.

    There are some signs that even large competitive companies are actually becoming more cooperative. For example, more than a few companies in the computer industry have actually made agreements to share their discoveries and inventions for their mutual benefit. Perhaps they are beginning to realize that they are in it together and that the only way they will ultimately succeed is to cooperate.

    I would be remiss if I concluded without New Games Foundation mentioning New Games,  an organization headquartered in Mendocino, California (707/937-3337). New Games conducts workshops in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and has compiled an extensive catalogue of cooperative games in print and on CD that I highly recommend.

    © 1999 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. Empowering People

    Download this essay in rich text format (rtf)

    Most of us are convinced that we get the goodies only when we win... In fact, as long as the two sides struggle against each other, no one side will win for long. Whatever gains one side takes pleasure in will give way to losses in the long run..

    Contrary to the popular view, we cannot choose to genuinely cooperate. We need first to finish our unfinished business But even if we forgo finishing, we can still choose to deal with others cooperatively, to seek to make mutually satisfying decisions.

    Empowering People

    Essays on Being Human

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