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Jenny Baker
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On Competition

./Steven Toaddy

It’s American football season, which has some of the people I love glued to the television so that they can find out whether they’ll be angry or just disappointed for the rest of the day. This provides many opportunities for (petulant) reflection on my part—from musing about BIRGing and CORFing to wondering just how it is that we manage to encourage young men to accumulate concussions for our amusement to, perhaps most foundationally, wonder what it is about sport that makes it make sense at all. I participate—and have participated—in my share of athletics, from tag on the playground in my youth to whatever trendy activities help me stay hip these days, but—and I’m using judgmental language here without justification—I participate in them in moderation, without, for instance, building my life, sponsorship deals, or multibillion-dollar franchises around them. Perhaps this sounds like sour grapes to you, but from where I stand, the point is more that I engage in these activities to exercise and celebrate my body, to connect with friends, and to while away the hours that stand between now and the grave; sports fandom accomplishes at best the latter two and at worst none of these objectives, plus it drives a wedge between the people of one clan and the next. What I see (or choose to see, or infer, or see but only through the lens of confirmation bias) is not so much the support and celebration of athletic and, more broadly, human excellence but the vilification of people on the basis of their uniform or fan-apparel colors, the celebration of the injury of humans (not just the sport in general, but jeering and cheering and gratitude when a player is rendered unable to continue playing due to injury), and suppression of fairness and sportspersonship in favor of booing a referee for making an inconvenient (if just) call on the field. I am not impressed.

Perhaps I have strayed too close to too many philosophy classes; perhaps I need to grow thicker skin and toss the pigskin around a bit more; perhaps I’m just a product of my generation; perhaps it’s all a bit of good fun and I should be less judgmental. Perhaps there’s something there that I don’t understand. There’s certainly money in it, if one positions oneself correctly.

But there is what I would characterize as toxic competition occurring not only in professional sports and their couch-based financial base. I have a bit of an acute sensitivity for this sort of thing, but I’ve seen the same sorts of practices—with admittedly fewer concussions—in our own field over the past months and years. I’ve heard of organizations competing over top talent with resultant bad blood between them. I’ve heard of annual submissions that didn’t make it in and the anger, the outrage, the jealousy of their submitters. I’ve watched researchers butt heads in unfriendly ways over their pet theories. I’ve walked through the booths of I-O service providers to hear them disparage each other. I’ve read submissions to TIP in which entire classes of people are reviled. Speaking anecdotally, we as members of the profession are collectively as vindictive, petty, and self-interested as any other group of people with whom I am familiar, and when given an opportunity to advantage ourselves at the cost of our fellow members, we do so without hesitation. I would that you can think of dozens of counterexamples, but I suspect that you cannot deny the truth of this claim based on your own experience of individual behaviors on the part of our membership.

Those whom I’ve heard defend competition have done so on the basis of its driving us to greater heights —of accomplishment, of motivation, of glory, of human excellence, or at least of entertainment. Even if these things are true, I wonder at the cost, and I wonder how we could optimize that cost/benefit ratio —what is the sweet spot between professional envy and ire on the one hand and low performance through lack of motivation on the other? For my part, I’m going to try to keep competing but to focus on celebrating the excellence of those who defeat me and those whom I defeat alike. We clearly aren’t all in this together, but I see no reason to allow that to drive us further apart.

This issue has a bunch of great content to get me started on that initiative. Christopher Castille helps us see (among many other things) how we can maximize the furtherment of our field rather than cutthroat and questionable research practices in his primer on Open Science. Liberty Munson brings us the story of David Baker, winner of the Distinguished Professional Contributions Award, who doesn’t fail to appreciate the collaboration, help, and friendship that he’s received from others in his professional career. Elizabeth McCune brings us a celebration of the excellence of submissions to the SIOP 2020 Annual program. Aimee Lace and Stuart Carr report on some ways to bend I-O psychology to the service of peace. Thanks to all of this issue’s authors—and to the newly reformed TIP Editorial Board for their thoughtful and constructive reviews of submissions. Let’s follow their lead in gently and gratefully demanding excellence of ourselves and of others.


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