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America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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