The Potential Upside of Having a “Rival”

As an only child, sibling rivalry was a foreign concept, so it’s been, um…interesting…to see my kids engage in occasional moments of this kind of behavior.

Like squabbling over who took whose pencil lead. Arguing about the fairness of chore distribution. Sneaky attempts to gain favor with the dog using treats.

Much of it is pretty exasperating, but there are also times when the little one takes the older one’s lead and tries to emulate his behavior. Like wanting to have the same teachers he had, go to the same middle school, or get better grades.

In music too, having aspirational role models to emulate, or “rival” musicians of similar ability to motivate you to work harder can often be invaluable. Maybe even a “nemesis” who always seems to win the competitions you enter. Or gets a higher seat in placement auditions.

Of course, sometimes these “rivalries” can turn into overly competitive, and unhealthy situations. Especially when everyone seems to be striving for the same coveted orchestral position, summer festival fellowship, or number of YouTube channel subscribers.

So what does the research say about having a “rival?” Could having a rival actually be a good thing? Or is it better to simply avoid comparing yourself to others around you?

The benefits of a rivalry

Researchers at Columbia and NYU (Pike, Kilduff, & Galinsky, 2018) were curious to see what kind of effect rivalries might have on teams’ performance from one season to the next.

So they analyzed 34 seasons worth of NCAA tournaments1, and the performance of 73 teams representing 6 major conferences during these years. Rivals were determined by surveying sportswriters at the student newspaper of all 73 teams, and asking them to rate the intensity of the rivalry between their home team and each of the other teams in the conference on a scale of 0 (not a rival) to 10 (fierce rival).

Then, they looked at how well each team’s rival did in the NCAA tournament the previous year, and whether there was any effect on how well the team did the following year.

Off-season motivation?

Lo and behold, the tournament performance of a team’s rival in one year, predicted how well the team would do in the tournament the next year. And there was a particularly strong bump in performance the next year, if one’s rival went all the way and won the tournament the prior year.

Meaning, if you want your hometown team to do well next year, and they’ve already been eliminated from the tournament, you might consider rooting for your team’s most-hated rivals instead of yelling at them on TV and sending them all your bad vibes.

And just so you know, this phenomenon wasn’t limited to just college basketball. The researchers found the same effect in the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB as well.

So, it seems that having a rival can sometimes be a positive source of motivation, and prompt you to work harder to improve your skills and performance over the course of many weeks and months.

But then again, rivalries may not always be such a positive thing too.

* * *

The downsides of a rivalry

A recent study (Huang, Lin, & Zhang, 2019) found that in some contexts, a competitive mindset can actually lead to self-sabotage.


201 undergraduate and graduate students were recruited to participate in a verbal creativity task. When arriving at the lab, students were told that they’d be paired up with another student for some parts of the task.

They were given the gender, age, and initials of this fake partner, and to really sell this cover story, students even exchanged a quick message with their supposed “partner,” and received a short scripted response back (i.e. “testing 123…I wonder what we’re gonna do.”).

Scrabble time

Then they began the task. Which was essentially like Scrabble – where they were given a string of letters (like RSLALHT), and had to make as many words as they could with those letters (rash, salt, etc.).

They were told that there would be 5 rounds, and that they’d win an Amazon gift card if they accumulated 100 points.

The scoring was such that the other student’s performance had no effect on their own score, but after 1, 2, 3, or 4 rounds2, participants were informed that they had earned 22, 42, 62, or 82 points, while the other student had 25, 45, 65, or 85 points.

What kind of partner will you be?

After receiving their score, participants were told that their role would change. That they were assigned to the role of “chooser,” while their partner would be the “receiver.” Meaning, they could select what letter string their partner would receive.

Their letter string choices were accompanied by a difficulty rating, and the participants were reminded that their partner would do better if they selected an easier letter string. They were also told that their own letter string would be selected at random by a computer, so there was no chance of their partner getting back at them for giving them a difficult letter string.

Finally, they received their letter string. And were told that they could spend as much time as they wanted to generate as many words (and points) as possible.

Sabotager and self-sabotage?

So what happened? Well, two things.

For one, students tended to sabotage their partner, by choosing the most difficult letter strings for them to work with. Which is kind of petty when you think about it, because how well or poorly their partner did on the task had no impact on their performance, or whether they would be able to win a gift card.

But more interestingly, those who gave their partner a harder letter string, tended to “coast.” Meaning, they put out less effort on their own final task, and didn’t try as hard to generate words and points.


Taking your eyes off the prize

The researchers think that as participants got closer to their goal, their competitiveness came out, and they started focusing less on what they needed to do to “win,” but started paying more attention to where they stood relative to their partner. Which led them to take their focus off of the true goal of 100 points, led to greater confidence in their performance relative to their partner, and diminished their motivation to work as hard – perhaps out of some sense of overconfidence.

Which seems to speak to the importance of focusing less on how others sound, and more on your own process, progress, and goals as you get closer to the day of a competition or audition.

Then again, these were strangers. Would the same kind of sabotage and self-sabotage happen if you were training with a trusted training buddy?

* * *

Cooperation vs. competition

Well, a 2006 study looked at something along these lines that might give us some clues (Johnson et al.).

The researchers assembled teams that would play a military-like strategy game in which they had to prevent enemy forces from moving into restricted areas, but allow friendly forces to move freely. The challenge, though, was that each individual’s radar did not cover the entire area, and so players would either have to coordinate and share information with their teammates, or waste time going through a longer process to find the information out themselves.

Some of the teams were told that if they were one of the top-performing teams, that they would win a cash prize, split equally among the teammates (cooperation). While other teams were told that to win a cash prize, they would have to one of the top-performing individuals in the experiment – which essentially required sabotaging one’s teammates (competition).

There were two rounds, where some teams engaged in the cooperative reward structure first, followed by the competitive one (“friendly competition”), while some engaged in competition first, and then cooperation (“cutthroat competition”).

Collaboration first

As it turns out, the teams that started out cooperating first, were able to transition to the competitive mode and still perform well as a team. But the teams that started out in competitive mode first, struggled to transition to cooperation mode and performed more poorly.

So it does seem that training with a trusted colleague or practice buddy with whom there is a history of collaboration could help to minimize or prevent the kind of self-sabotage observed in the previous study, and provide you with someone to help motivate you to grow and learn and reach for greater heights from one year to the next.

Additional resources

For more on the subject of productive and unproductive rivalries, check out organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s recent podcast episode on rivals, which prompted this exploration And while you’re at it, his episode on Networking for People Who Hate Networking is also worth a listen.

You might also want to check out his website, which has lots of articles, plus self-assessments on originality, and whether you are a giver or taker.


Huang, S., Lin, S. C., & Zhang, Y. (2019). When individual goal pursuit turns competitive: How we sabotage and coast. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Johnson, M. D., Hollenbeck, J. R., Humphrey, S. E., Ilgen, D. R., Jundt, D., & Meyer, C. J. (2006). Cutthroat Cooperation: Asymmetrical Adaptation To Changes In Team Reward Structures. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 103-119.

Pike, B. E., Kilduff, G. J., & Galinsky, A. D. (2018). The Long Shadow of Rivalry: Rivalry Motivates Performance Today and Tomorrow. Psychological Science, 29(5), 804–813.


  1. From 1979-80 to 2012-13
  2. Each of these conditions had 50 students, i.e. 50 students were given their score after 1 round, 50 were given their score after 2 rounds, etc.

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One Response

  1. When I was in junior and senior high school there was Eric, one year older than me. Our orchestra teacher allowed us to challenge a person for their chair. I wanted first chair so I challenged him and won the chair. Next time around he wanted it back, worked hard, and he won it. And back and forth it went. Because of that rivalry we both worked harder and we both made it into Missouri All-State Orchestra. I’m grateful for what Eric did for me.

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