When we measure ourselves against someone else, we tend to have more motivation and accomplish more. When we measure ourselves against someone in close geographical proximity, and if there is a history of close competition, we create a rivalry. The intensity of rivalries, as any college football fan knows, takes competition to another level. Now, psychological scientists say our ambition and achievement improve even more when we engage in competition with a rival.

Harvard psychologist Mina Cikara says that rivalry is competition plus time, which provides "opportunity for attitudes and emotions to become more polarized and entrenched." And if your competitor resides in close geographical proximity, you are likely competing for a limited resource, whether that resource is football fans, grant money, votes, etc.

Competition that evolves into rivalry increases performance levels, according to experiments run by New York University management professor Gavin Kilduff.

"In one study, published in July in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, he looked at race results from members of a running club, examining what happened when rival runners raced against each other. He learned that the runners were faster—by about 25 seconds in 5-kilometer races—when competing against their rivals."

Of course the history of rivalry is replete with choke artists. So if you are experiencing the arousal of storied competition, keeping a cool head is your best plan of action. In his Big Think interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains how competition has been essential to scientific achievement in the modern era:

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

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