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More Competitors = Less Competition

2/17/2009 --

Research could have implications for classroom size, work environments, says Ross professor.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—New research from a Ross School professor finds that the more rats in the race, the less inspired they are to win.

In a forthcoming research article in Psychological Science, a series of studies by Stephen Garcia, adjunct assistant professor of management and organizations and assistant professor of psychology and organizational studies, and Avishalom Tor, assistant professor of law at the University of Haifa, find that increasing the number of players in a competition can decrease competitive motivation.

Garcia and Tor conducted several studies that show evidence of what they dub the N-effect. That is, when the number (N) of competitors in a competition increases, the motivation to compete decreases, even when the probability of winning remains constant.

The researchers examined state-level SAT test score results published by the College Board for all 50 states. They found that the more SAT test-takers show up, on average, at a particular state's test-taking venues, the lower the average SAT scores at that state.

In another study, participants were given an easy quiz and told to finish as quickly as possible without compromising accuracy. The results once again supported the hypothesis, as the participants who believed they were competing with 10 others completed the easy quiz significantly faster than those participants who believed they were competing with 100 others.

Garcia and Tor argue that since social comparison processes often motivate individuals to compete, when the number of competitors increases, social comparison (an inherently interpersonal process) becomes diffused.

"While competitors can experience or anticipate social comparisons between themselves and a few others, it becomes less viable and informative to compare oneself, or anticipate comparisons, with a great number of competitors," says Garcia.

"For this reason," adds Tor, "we hypothesize that in large N environments, social comparison becomes less important and competitive motivation diminishes."

Garcia and Tor cite several practical applications for the research, ranging from the classroom to the corporate setting.

"Some people suggest that class size in schools is rather insignificant, while others deem it important," says Tor. "The N-Effect sheds new light on this debate by revealing that as the mere number of students in the classroom increases, motivation to compete and exert academic effort are likely to decrease."

Garcia cites similar implications for the workplace.

"Worker productivity on individual tasks like commission-based sales might decrease when performed among many similar workers -- such as sale agents in a large warehouse --than when performed among only a few workers, as in smaller branch offices," he says.

These findings take social comparison in a new direction, one that examines how objective, contextual factors impact motivation to compete. The researchers hope to explore those factors further in future research.

—Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,