Why do we want to win all the time?

by | Aug 11, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 comments

One reason we want to win at sports and games and so on is that winning has had evolutionary value for humans. The winner in combat or real-life or staged tests of strength or cunning may have had extra opportunities to reproduce. The winners may have been like modern rock stars and professional athletes. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, reported in a biography that he had sexual relations with 20,000 women by the time he reached 55 years of age.  See http://mentalfloss.com/article/12310/did-wilt-chamberlain-really-sleep-20000-women. Our ancestors are likely to have been individuals who were quite competitive and to have benefited reproductively by their competitive successes.

The individuals long ago who were not competitive may not have lived long enough to reproduce, they may not have done enough to help their children survive to reproduce, and they may not have had many opportunities to reproduce. Their non-competitive genes may now be rare among humans.

How does evolutionary pressure toward competitiveness manifest itself in our day-to-day life? We approach challenges and competitions with a strong goal of winning. We feel happy (psychologically reinforced for our efforts) when we win. We feel angry or disappointed (psychologically punished) if we lose. The reactions of others may also reinforce our efforts to win. Cheers and high-5s make us feel good when we win. Our pals shaking their heads or looking at their feet when we lose has the opposite effect. Because our culture endorses winning, we see many models of winners reaping benefits and losers eating crow. These models affect us, consciously and unconsciously.

Can we do anything to reduce our competitiveness when it is counterproductive?  Yes. I wrote about how to do that in a prior posting: https://blog.une.edu.au/usingpsychology/2014/05/02/are-you-a-poor-loser/.

How competitive are you? When is competitiveness helpful? Harmful? Can you turn on the competitiveness when it is helpful and turn it off when it is not? How do you do that?

John Malouff, PhD, JD, Assoc Prof of Psychology




  1. I believe winning has a strong link to our SELF ESTEEM which is not mentioned here

  2. Hi Brian. Yes, winning can enhance self-esteem.

  3. Winning is sometimes associated with feeling special / unique – “he won first place among 3,000+ swimmers” – wow I am the best out of this pool (pun intended) of over 3,000 people. Sometimes test (and other type of) results / data is presented along with comparison figures – “your credit score puts you in the top 3%” – wow!

  4. Hi Simon. Yes, winning is usually reinforcing.

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