The researchers started off with a simple observation that US students tended to get better marks when they took their exams in smaller exam rooms.
This could have been for many reasons of course, so they set about running several experiments to see if the effect was genuinely down to competitiveness.
These additional studies found that smaller groups do indeed increase competitiveness, and several also allowed them to attempt to explain why:
…they told 50 students that they would have a week to win $100 by adding as many Facebook friends as possible. They found that the students felt more motivated to compete when facing 10 competitors compared to 10,000, and they were also more likely to compare themselves against the others within the smaller contest. The number of competitors predicted the students’ motivations to compete, but that association disappeared after adjusting for their tendency to compare themselves with others.
This same experiment allowed them to rule out the possibility that the students were more motivated in the smaller group, simply because they thought the task would be easier. They certainly felt that way (albeit wrongly – in both cases, the prizes went to the top 20% and the students understood that) but it didn’t affect their behaviour. Adjusting for this perception of difficulty didn’t strongly affect the link between number of competitors and motivation.
In other words, the effect of the number of competitors on our motivation seems to work through how likely we are to compare ourselves to others.
But contrary to what we might expect, those who compare themselves most to others are more likely to be competitive when there are fewer people.
The authors suggest that this may be because personal comparisons are easier when we can think of our competitors as individuals rather than having a more abstract idea of a nebulous ‘group’.
Anyway, another great piece from Not Exactly Rocket Science, where you can get a more detailed low-down on the study.