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Competition vs. Cooperation

Competition vs. Cooperation

by William H. Benson

July 31, 2014

     Two boys were playing badminton, and because Andy played better than Bob, Andy won all the games. Bob threw down his racket, sat on a tree stump, and said, “I won’t play anymore.” So Andy suggested a different game. “Bob, let’s see how long we can keep the bird going between us and count how many times it goes back and forth without falling. Do you think we could make a score of ten or twenty?” Bob thought it a grand idea, and so the two boys resumed playing a cooperative game.

      From his office window, the German psychologist, Max Wertheimer, watched as Andy and Bob worked out their discrepancy in playing skills, and from this example Max concluded in his book Productive Thinking that “Often one must first forget what he wants before he can become susceptible to what the situation itself requires. This transition is a great moment in genuine thought processes.”

     For an instant Andy forgot about winning the game in order to remain friendly with Bob, and if he had not done so, the two boys would have quarreled, shouted at each other, and thrown punches.

     Winning at all costs as well as avoiding a serious loss can disrupt relationships, escalate violence, and result in war. An idea can so grip a person or a nation that they will not surrender that idea, even though it yields counter-productive and detrimental results.

     For example, in the spring of 1865, the South refused to consider ending slavery, surrendering their government, and rejoining the union, and so General Robert E. Lee fought for months, long after he knew he could not defeat General Grant and win the war. As a result, thousands of Southern and Northern soldiers were killed or wounded in bloody battles during the Civil War’s final months.

     Then, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on two Japaneses cities, annihilating one hundred and fifty thousand Japanese citizens, before the Japanese government surrendered their idea of a far-flung Japanese empire across the Pacific.

     James Harvey Robinson, an American historian, said it best. “We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them whenever anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship.”

     Human beings are loathe to give up an idea that they swallowed years before. Separation and divorce are painful events because no one wants to admit failure, but they are society’s way of protecting the vulnerable, the men and women and children who face deceit or violence at home.

Bankruptcy is equally devastating, but it too is society’s method for handling a financial quandary.

     Divorce, bankruptcy, or the loss of an empire, a government, a ballgame, an election, or a job are numbing and devastating experiences, and people will fight to the bitter end in order to avoid that feeling. They are the people who say, “I will never give up!”

      But what happens if someone surrenders his or her idea? The answer is, “Life goes on.” A loss is never final nor permanent. Because the universe is constantly expanding, according to Stephen Hawking, galaxies are moving away from each other, time and space march on, and so chances are excellent that other opportunities will appear. So why grip so tight to an idea that may have looked appropriate at the time when first encountered, but is no longer?

     Detroit declared bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, swamped by a debt of $18.5 billion, but today Motown is healing. Investors are buying buildings and homes, demolition crews and the wrecking ball are knocking down the 78,000 abandoned properties, small businesses are emerging, and in the parks and open areas, farmers are swathing hay and selling vegetables at a farmers’ market. Life goes on.

     This month, the Israeli army invaded Gaza again, this time to destroy the tunnel network that Hamas has dug into Israel. Lt. Colonel Peter Lerner of Israel’s army charged Hamas, “They shifted all of their assets, all of their infrastructure, all of their defensive capabilities, into these offensive capabilities in order to have some element of surprise.” And Hamas turned Gaza into a rocket factory.

     Israel and Hamas at war again. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times last week, “This is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. Both sides have good people who want the best for their children, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred.”

     Kristoff suggests instead a cooperative game. “That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel.” Hamas though appears determined to drive the Israelis out of Palestine, and Israel seems equally determined to never surrender its dream of a homeland for the Jewish people. “This is,” wrote Kristoff, “the aching story of two peoples—each with legitimate grievances—colliding with each other.”


     If peace will ever find a home in Palestine, it will happen when one side or the other will surrender its current dream and substitute another in its place. Andy suggested a solution, Bob agreed, and so too perhaps someone in Gaza or Israel can think of a cooperative, rather than a competitive, game.