By Perry W. Buffington, Ph.D. 



     Which works better, competition or cooperation?  The answer, 

without equivocation, is cooperation.  Although most people are 

surprised by this, scientists have repeatedly verified it in 

hundreds of studies since the late 1800s.  Yet big business, the 

educational system, the health-care community, and most parents 

continue to encourage competition, almost totally neglecting the 

power of cooperation.  None of these groups realizes that 

unabated competition may be costing billions of dollars in sales 

and overall decreases in human achievement.  Furthermore, 

researchers have shown that too much competition may cause poor 

health.  Yet we continue to hold the cherished belief that 

competition (not cooperation), to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, "is 

the royal road to success." 

     If in fact competition brings out the "beast" in us, then 

research demonstrates that cooperation surely brings out the 

"best" in us.  This finding has been held in virtually every 

occupation, skill, or behavior tested.  For instance, scientists 

who consider themselves cooperative tend to have more published 

articles than their competitive colleagues.  Cooperative 

businesspeople have higher salaries.  From elementary grades to 

college, cooperative students have higher grade point averages.  

Personnel directors who work together have fewer job vacancies  

to fill.  And, not surprisingly, cooperation increases 

creativity.  Unfortunately, most people are not taught 

cooperative skills. 

     Dr. David W. Johnson and Dr. Roger T. Johnson, professors at 

the University of Minnesota and co-directors of the    

Cooperative Learning Center, concur and add that education and 

psychology have been at odds on the issue for years.  Roger 

Johnson explains, "If we are to teach people to be cooperative, 

then education and psychology must work together.  You see, a 

typical classroom teacher is taught to keep students quiet and 

apart, indirectly fostering competition.  Yet ... people learn 

best when they work cooperatively with each other.  Children who 

experience this type of learning at an early age carry it with 

them as they mature."

     David Johnson adds, "More students feel good about 

themselves as learners when they cooperate.  Their self-esteem 

goes up, they have a better sense of community, belonging, and 

acceptance.  One can also extrapolate this finding to any 


     The Cooperative Learning Center, cooperatively chaired by 

the Johnsons, has been researching and training cooperative 

skills for over 15 years.  According to Roger Johnson, the Center 

has "a research base of over 500 studies dating back to the turn 

of the century."

     Given their research and training tradition, the Johnsons are concerned that too much unsupported emphasis is placed on 

competition.  Moreover, they feel that the means by which 

individuals once learned cooperative skills are eroding.

     Roger explains, "There are a lot of reasons to worry.  Some 

of the standard ways that people once learned to cooperate - 

home, churches, communities - are not operating as they did a 

generation ago.  Teaching young people how to cooperate does not 

receive the appropriate level of interest."  As a result, 

competition breeds unabated.  Few are teaching, practicing, or 

promoting a better idea. 

     To counteract this problem, the Johnsons work through 

education.  Says David Johnson, "Although we do some work with 

big business, we prefer to work with the school system.  That way 

we teach students, the next business generation, how to be 

cooperative and influence corporate America indirectly.  Once 

people experience cooperation, they find out that it's a better, 

even easier way." 

     It seems that cooperation has an impact on individuals 

working together in several key areas.  Not only does it create a 

more fluid leadership, but it allows everyone to participate 

actively without fear of censure.  Cooperation also has an 

impact on an individual's perception of the work environment. 

     Another area directly impacted by cooperation is, perhaps 

surprisingly, health.  A fascinating study conducted by the 

Cooperative Learning Center took a statistical look at 

competitive hockey players.  The study examined the relation 

between cooperation/competition and mental and mental and 

physical health.  The Center evaluated 57 collegiate and 

semiprofessional ice-hockey players (aged 18-29 years) trying out 

for the 1980  Olympic team.  Using sophisticated personality 

measures and a social-interaction scale, the researchers found 

that cooperation does much more than help people get along.

     In this study, the more cooperative individuals were better 

adjusted psychologically and physically healthier than their more 

competitive colleagues.  It seems that competition, or the 

constant feeling that you have to work against something, has 

unhealthy physical side effects.  Cooperation, and other

pro-social/unselfish behaviors, tend to have positive side


     To that point, limited evidence suggests that cooperation 

generates a type of "runner's high."  Although the research is 

not definitive, it is promising.  Like those individuals who 

exercise regularly, people who are cooperative and help others 

also experience a type of "high," which might better be described 

as calmness or sense of freedom from stress.  As the researchers 

have shown, once this cooperation, not competition, is preferred. 

     Additionally, individuals who develop a cooperative stance 

tend to feel more in control of their lives and do not live for 

approval from others.  They tend to feel good.  This is in sharp 

contrast to the constant intensity of the competitive individual. 

     As with everything, too much of a good thing can be a 

problem.  In the case of cooperation, as psychologists point out, 

too much can lead to "group-think," "yes-man syndrome," or 

inappropriate conformity. 

     Scott G. Isaksen, director for Studies in Creativity at 

Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York, explains, "If 

everyone is so caught up in cooperation with the other side that

they lose a critical respect for the issue, they can all decide

to do the wrong thing unanimously.  Although there's no doubt

that a 

cooperative environment increases the number of ideas, improves 

the quality of the outcome, and facilitates a better working 

environment, cooperation must be done in such a way as to protect 

the integrity of the project at hand."  Simply put, cooperation 

is the rule, but objectivity must be maintained. 

     There are ways to facilitate cooperation, and they are the 

same no matter the environment, from big business to peewee 



1.   Focus on doing well. Isaksen points out that attempting to

     do well and trying to beat others are two separate mental

     processes.  It is impossible to concentrate on both.  Of the

     two, cooperating with yourself and others to create a

     positive outcome has more rewards. 


2.   Allow ample time.  Cooperation comes to a grinding halt as

     time pressures increase.  Time pressures produce non-agreement, 

     decreased information exchanges, and firmer

     negotiator demands.  The perception of available time

     facilitates cooperation. 


3.   Use similar language.  If someone is hoping you will

     cooperate with him or her on a particular venture, ask

     questions using the same works they used to describe the

     plan originally. Isaksen explains, "This creates what

     psychologists call 'congruence,' and you will appear to be

     more cooperative and interested even though you are

     critically challenging and gathering additional information. 


4.   Share leadership. Isaksen sees cooperation as a form of

     leadership, equally shared by all group members.  By sharing

     the leadership, you allow others to take on initiative and

     to be integral parts of the group.  There is an increased

     sense of "ownership" of plans and ideas by all members, and

     the work environment is pleasurable. 


5.   Learn cooperative problem-solving tools. Isaksen points out

     that these are really creativity tools by another name.  For

     instance, he says, "A simple tool is brainstorming. 

     What happens is that someone invites another to offer wild

     suggestions so that others can find ways in which they can

     tag along, create, or cooperate."  Other techniques include

     suspending judgment, clarifying goals and objectives before

     seeking cooperation, and evaluating others' plans in a non-threatening 



6.   Practice reciprocity.  When someone helps you out, make it a

     point to help them.  Express your gratitude by helping them

     before they expect it.  A policy of general reciprocity -

     people helping people - facilitates cooperation.  This

     particular technique has been shown empirically (especially

     in international studies) as one of the few ways to gain an

     adversary's cooperation. 


7.   Share resources and information.  When people are vying for

     knowledge, work space, personnel, or anything to help them

     get the job done, cooperation decreases.  Resource exchange,

     however, encourages one person to work with another. 


8.   Reinforce team efforts.  Rather than praising one person for

     a job well done, utilize a team approach to problem solving. 

     When the team does well, the entire group is rewarded.  This

     minimizes individual competition, and maximizes cooperation. 

     Distribute the rewards equally among group members. 


9.   Act cooperatively.  Research supports the fact that

     individuals who have witnessed a cooperative act will

     "pass it on," sharing some degree of cooperation with the

     next person they meet.  Anytime you help another person

     feel better, you have increased the probability that he or

     she will be cooperative toward you.  As Isaksen summarizes,

     "Actions speak louder than words and encourage another

     person to cooperate with you." 


10.  For your health's sake, experience cooperation.  Make it a

     point to notice how much better you feel when you

     cooperate with others.  As the researchers suggest, once you

     experience the positive feelings, there seems to be no other

     way to work except cooperatively. 


     Cooperation is a valuable commodity and works best when it 

is freely given and indirectly encouraged.  It promotes goodwill 

toward men and women, and is a gift that is always appropriate.  

And there's no better time to be cooperative.  After all, 'tis 

the season.                          



Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Krotee, M.L. "The relation

     between social interdependence and psychological health on

     the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team." (May, 1986). Journal

     of Psychology, 120, 279-291. 

Kohn, A. "How to succeed without even vying." (September, 1986)

     Psychology Today, 20.22-28.