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Keep Up With the Others – Social Competition

January 18, 2013

The social influences on human behavior have evolutionary roots. As products of evolution, humans have to achieve two evolutionary macro-goals: Survival and Successful reproduction.


Evolution is not a nice and fluffy egalitarian process. Evolution, by its very nature, implies selection. In turn this implies that not all individuals get to send their genes into the next generation – successful reproduction. Some die before having offspring, others can’t find a mate with whom to have children, others find a mate, but of low quality and subsequently their offspring are of low quality too and in a couple of generations their offspring will not have children and so on.




The main social consequence of selectivity in evolution is that people, as well as other species, compete with each other. The area of competition is apparently broad, but in fact it can be reduced to a few dimensions.


First, we compete for attracting mates. Finding the best possible mate with whom to procreate is, from an evolutionary perspective, one of the top three most important goals in life. In order to ensure the perpetuation of your genes in the next generation, you need to find the best possible partner to have children with. Moreover, since humans need a lot of time and investment before becoming independent, the partner should be good at parenting and be able to invest effort and resources in bringing up a child.


Second, we compete in order to defer same sex rivals. It is not enough to impress a potential mate, rather apart from impressing the potential mate we have to make sure that no other same sex individual impresses our potential mate. The popular belief about competing for mates is that only males do it. This is true for species that have choosy females and males who would mate and have offspring with any female. These species are also characterized by uneven parental investment. In other words, the entire effort of raising the offspring is done by the female. When it comes to humans, however, things are a bit different. In the case of humans the parental effort is divided roughly equally between the two parents. This implies that men are also choosy and would not have children with any human female. As a consequence, women too, compete for attracting potential mates and deferring same sex rivals.


Third, we compete for parental investment. Even as children we have to compete for the limited resources of the parents. These include material resources such as food, attention, time and so on. In today’s western world it is not uncommon for families to have only one child, thus leading to a lack of need for competition. In the past, however, having only one child was extremely rare. Moreover, considering the infant and adult mortality rates it would also be ineffective, from an evolutionary perspective, to not have more children. We like to think that as parents we give equal attention and resources to our children, but the reality is slightly different. Even the smallest difference in parental investment given to children can make a huge difference in their later lives. I don’t want to develop this argument further since it is not the topic of the post, but the key idea is that sibling competition exists.


Everybody who has children or has seen families with children has witnessed a rather disturbing situation in which a child does something dangerous and somehow stupid saying: Look at me what I can do. This is an example of children competing for parental investment. By doing something dangerous, the child communicates that he or she has good physical abilities and thus deserves parental resources.


Fourth, we compete for friends and allies. As a social species we have friends and allies; we also have enemies. From an evolutionary perspective having more and better friends and allies constitutes a very high benefit. Having more and better friends leads to the possibility of acquiring more resources. Think for example of collective hunting.  At the same time it offers better protection against threats such as predators and natural disasters.


Examples such as collective hunting and protection against predators are highly relevant for our distant ancestors’ lives and a lot less meaningful for modern life. However, the main principles are more or less the same even in the XXIst century. Having more and higher quality (social status) friends can help you get a good job (please read access to resources). Similarly, in case of a bar fight it is better to have more and stronger friends willing to help you.


The competition in social relationships comes from an inherent trait of humans, namely that we can have a limited number of meaningful social relationships. To make a long story short, a human can have meaningful relationships with at most one hundred and fifty people. Apart from the limited number of relationships that we can have, there is the issue of is it worth being friends with you. I don’t mean by this that friendships are based only on self-interest, but simply that having a social relationship with someone should be pleasant.

All these competitive relationships that humans have can be summed up into competition for one thing only, namely (social) STATUS.


Competition for status is deeply rooted in human nature. As you most likely have noticed, competition for status can have both positive and negative outcomes. For ex