Competing to be Attractive

Why is that we humans are not naturally predisposed to sharing basic necessities of life. Surely there are enough resources in our world for everyone to at least have their basic needs satisfied. Yet there are millions without the basic needs. How are we to make sense of this? If we look at most species on this planet they all compete for basic needs, for food, nest sites, sexual opportunities etc. I suppose the only way to avoid this competition would be ether to live in isolation or learn to live with others without harming or killing each when acquiring these basic needs. Living and evolving in isolation is more difficult. It is more likely that a group will solve a given problem rather than those living in isolation. There are benefits to living in groups, and for those to evolve, evolution had to come up with a way to remove the potential for constant fighting between the group members. In animals this is achieved by submissive behavior by the less powerful animals and for the dominant animals to accept this behavior as evidence that their rule is not challenged. This kind of behavior is called ” ranks of social deference” and it has allowed animals to live together without continual warfare.

In time the behavior in humans has evolved to allow greater close proximity and hopefully more cooperative behavior as well. So how do we humans avoid the constant warfare? I am not sure if we have exactly stopped the warfare, all we have done is to become subtler, instead of using out right aggression we are subtly competing with each other. Our behavior can be understood by  “social rank mentality”, which are a way of thinking about our social relationships and ourselves and a way for us to organize the distribution of resources.

We have come a long way from using aggression and physical threats to compete for goods. Instead we have become sophisticated and use our experience, knowledge, age, authority, tradition, power, talent and beauty to gain that competitive edge. We want to compete by being seen as talented, desirable and worthy: we want to impress. We like to be patted on the head; it makes us feel valued, wanted and safe. With regards to being cooperative, and sharing knowledge, we like recognition and the awareness that we’ve been helpful.

Although there might not be any aggressive intent here because we’re competing to be attractive to others, we can still display irritation, anger and even threats of or actual violence if we feel that the competition has been unfair or that our ‘position’, ‘status’ or ‘power’ is being threatened.

We humans are very social rank aware and motivated. We pay attention to out social position in our social hierarchy, we think about our relationship in terms of hierarchies and social comparisons – strong/ powerful v. weak/ powerless. Winner v. loser, superior v. inferior etc. We behave in ways appropriate to hierarchies: competing for status, trying to impress those in powerful positions, submitting, showing deference, subduing subordinates or competitors.

So this social mentality involves motives to win competitions and conflicts for resources and social position and to subdue competitors. The competitive social mentality will also orient us to think in terms of envy and of undermining other people, because this can advance our own interests. From the world trade talks to street gangs, maintaining one’s competitive advantage dominates thinking.

The drawback of competitive social mentality is that it also tends to turn off the patterns in our minds that facilitate caring. It also puts people who are anxious or depressed at a disadvantage because they believe themselves to be of low rank- inferior or inadequate. Narcissist on the other hand, is highly competitive, seek high rank, want to impress others and be seen as superior.


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

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