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  • THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RIVALRY:A RELATIONALLY DEPENDENT ANALYSIS OF COMPETITION

    GAVIN J. KILDUFFNew York University

    HILLARY ANGER ELFENBEINWashington University in St. Louis

    BARRY M. STAWUniversity of California, Berkeley

    We investigate the psychological phenomenon of rivalry and propose that competitionis inherently relational, thus extending the literatures on competition between indi-viduals, groups, and firms. Specifically, we argue that competitors relationships,determined by their proximity, attributes, and prior competitive interactions, influ-ence the subjective intensity of rivalry between them, which in turn affects theircompetitive behavior. Initial tests in NCAA basketball support these ideas, indicatingthat teams similarity and interaction histories systematically predict rivalry, and thatrivalry may affect team members motivation and performance. Implications for themanagement of employees, as well as for organizations competitive strategies, aresignificant.

    When the new schedule would come out each year,Id grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it wasThe Two and the other 80.

    Magic Johnson

    The first thing I would do every morning was look atthe box scores to see what Magic did. I didnt careabout anything else.1

    Larry Bird

    Competition is a fact of life; employees competefor promotions, groups of researchers vie for grants,and companies fight for market share. Typicallyassociated with competition is the drive to win, ordefeat ones opponents. However, not all oppo-nents are alike. Certain competitors, or rivals, caninstill a motivation to perform that goes above andbeyond an ordinary competitive spirit or the objec-

    tive stakes of the contest. It is clear from the open-ing quotes that Magic Johnson and Larry Birdviewed contests with each other as far more signif-icant than games against other teams and playersand that they were heavily focused on, indeedalmost obsessed with, their relative levels ofperformance.

    Although these sorts of rivalries are prominent insports, they may arise in many other settings aswell. A student may be particularly motivated tooutperform certain peers; an academic may closelymonitor the citation counts of certain other schol-ars. In the business world, rivalry may be especiallycommon. Within firms, employees who find them-selves repeatedly competing for bonuses or promo-tions may come to see one another as rivals in therace for career advancement. Between firms, long-standing industry competitors, such as Oracle andSAP, Coke and Pepsi, or Microsoft and Apple, maycome to define success by their performance vis-a-vis one another. In turn, these rivalries can grow sointense as to lead to abnormal, suboptimal, ordownright shocking competitive behavior. For ex-ample, in 1993, Virgin Atlantic won a libel suitagainst British Airways after the latter admitted tohaving launched a dirty tricks campaign againstits rival, which included calling Virgins customersto tell them their flights had been cancelled inaddition to circulating rumors that Virgin CEORichard Branson was infected with HIV (Branson,1998). In a slightly less scandalous example, Bos-

    We thank Cameron Anderson, Dan Elfenbein, AdamGrant, David Kenny, Ajay Mehra, Chris Rider, PhilipTetlock, and Robb Willer for their helpful feedback andcomments, as well as our three anonymous reviewersand Associate Editor Peter Bamberger. We also thankAlexander Song and Syed Rizvi for their assistance withdata collection. Lastly, we recognize the support pro-vided by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employ-ment at the University of California, Berkeley.

    1 The source of these quotes is http://www.nba.com/encyclopedia/ryan_rivalries.html. Magic Johnson andLarry Bird were professional basketball players andkey members of the Los Angeles Lakers and the BostonCeltics, respectively.

    Academy of Management Journal2010, Vol. 53, No. 5, 943969.

    943

    Copyright of the Academy of Management, all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyright holders expresswritten permission. Users may print, download or email articles for individual use only.

  • ton Scientific recently overpaid for its acquisitionof Guidantlater called arguably the second-worst acquisition ever (Tully, 2006)in large partbecause it was bidding against rival Johnson &Johnson (Malhotra, Ku, & Murnighan, 2008; Tully,2006).

    It is evident from these examples that rivalry is apowerful psychological phenomenon with substan-tial behavioral consequences. To date, however,researchers have paid little attention to the psy-chology of rivalry, which is symptomatic of abroader lack of study of the relationships betweencompetitors. We attempt to fill this gap by present-ing a theory of rivalry as a subjective relationshipbetween competitors and by investigating its ante-cedents and consequences. In doing so, we drawupon the literatures on competition between indi-viduals, groups, and organizations. After outliningour theoretical model, we report a first test of ourhypotheses in a setting known to be rife with ri-valry: National Collegiate Athletic Association(NCAA) basketball.

    BACKGROUND AND THEORY DEVELOPMENT

    Prior Research on Competition

    A logical starting point for the study of rivalry isthe broader topic of competition. Because researchon competition has addressed the individual,group, and organizational levels, we briefly revieweach of these literatures. A common theme amongthem is an underemphasis on the relationshipsand by extension, the rivalriesthat exist betweencompetitors.

    Competition between individuals. Deutsch(1949) defined competition in purely situationalterms, as a setting in which the goal attainment ofparticipants is negatively linked, so that the suc-cess of one participant inherently comes at thefailure of the other. Following from this definition,studies of interindividual competition have typi-cally examined participants in a laboratory setting,pitting them against one another or against confed-erates of the experimenter (e.g., Beersma, Hollen-beck, Humphrey, Moon, & Conlon, 2003; Deci, Bet-ley, Kahle, Abrams, & Porac, 1981; Reeve & Deci,1996; Scott & Cherrington, 1974; Stanne, Johnson,& Johnson, 1999; Tauer & Harackiewicz, 1999). Forexample, participants are paired with a confederateand told to try to complete more puzzles than himor her (Deci et al., 1981). Although this approachhas been successful in isolating the effects of com-petition as defined by Deutsch, it may fail to fullycapture the essence of competition in the realworld, where competitors often know one another

    and have histories of prior interaction. Indeed, thevast majority of studies on interindividual compe-tition match unacquainted individuals in the labo-ratory, and even field studies of competition do nottypically distinguish participants on the basis oftheir prior relationships (e.g., Brown, Cron, & Slo-cum, 1998; Tauer & Harackiewicz, 2004).

    In contrast, we believe that the nature of compe-tition may vary depending on the relationship be-tween competitors. For instance, competing againsta familiar foe may be quite a different experiencethan competing against a stranger. Although littleresearch has directly examined relationships be-tween competitors, related literatures suggest theirimportance. For instance, game theorists haveshown that the decisions made by participants in aprisoners dilemma game are affected by the priorinteractions they have had with their partners (Bet-tenhausen & Murnighan, 1991). Such findings haveled researchers to focus on repeated game scenariosas opposed to isolated interactions (e.g., Boles, Cro-son, & Murnighan, 2000; Chen & Bachrach, 2003;Sivanathan, Pillutla, & Murnighan, 2008). Simi-larly, researchers in the area of negotiations haveshown that relationships and prior interactions canaffect both negotiators behaviors and outcomes(Curhan, Elfenbein, & Eisenkraft, 2009; Drolet &Morris, 2000; Thompson, Valley, & Kramer, 1995;Valley, Neale, & Mannix, 1995). Finally, a recentstudy on auction behavior indicates that people aremore likely to exceed their bidding limits whenfacing a few, rather than many, competing bidders,suggesting that rivalry may develop between bid-ders and push them to try to achieve victory (Ku,Malhotra, & Murnighan, 2005).

    Competition between groups. Studies examin-ing competition between groups have closely re-sembled those on competition between individ-uals. In the typical laboratory experiment,participants are placed into groups, these groupsare pitted against one another, and measures ofmotivation, cohesion, and performance are thencollected (e.g., Mulvey & Ribbens, 1999). Some-times, an individual-level competition condition isincluded as well, with the goal of comparing inter-individual with intergroup competition (Erev,Bornstein, & Galili, 1993; Hammond & Goldman,1961; Julian & Perry, 1967; Tauer & Harackiewicz,2004; Young, Fisher, & Lindquist, 1993). Regard-less, the relationships between competing groupsare rarely measured or manipulated.

    Certain studies on the related topic of intergroupbias, however, support the idea that intergroup at-titudes and behavior can be relationally dependent.Intergroup bias refers to tendency for people toperceive their own groups more positively than

    944 OctoberAcademy of Management Journal

  • other groups (Brewer, 1979; Sherif, Harvey, White,Hood, & Sherif, 1961; for a recent review, see Hew-stone, Rubin, and Willis [2002]). Although much ofthis work is steeped in the minimal group para-digm, wherein arbitrary characteristics are used todivide participants into groups (e.g., Brewer, 1979;Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971), a number