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Oct 4, 2021 2021-10

Beyond competitors — Understanding the ramifications of rivalry

In the daily struggles of life, there are competitors — and then there are rivals. For most of us, there’s not much that distinguishes the two. But according to postdoctoral research associate David Reinhard, there is a difference. And understanding that difference could help us understand much of the conflict that we see in this world, whether it unfolds in the bleachers, on the battle front or in the well-upholstered chairs of the corporate boardroom.

“Anytime one party can only accomplish their goals at the expense of another party failing to achieve theirs, we say they’re competitors,” explained Reinhard. “But what we find with rivalry is that it's a competitive relationship where the current competition feels like it's part of this much larger competitive narrative. So, the current contest feels like it's connected to the past, and connected to the future, and is part of your legacy.”

Postdoctoral research associate David ReinhardAccording to Reinhard, those deep-seated feelings can have negative consequences, even normalizing violence that isn’t normally acceptable. When competitors lose, they shake hands and go about their day. But when rivals go head-to-head, cars burn and cities go into lockdown.

To explore this phenomenon, Reinhard looked where we see it most often occur — in major sports. By analyzing several years of police arrest data from high-stakes professional sporting events in the US and Germany, Reinhard was able to demonstrate that fans’ perceived rivalry predicted stadium arrests and violent behavior, even when controlling for crowd size, police presence and a number of other factors. 

Of course, rivalry isn’t restricted to the field, court, or stadium. It also plays a role in geopolitical conflict. In one study, for example, Reinhard found that Americans who perceive China as a rival were significantly more likely to support confrontational economic policies than Americans who perceived them as a partner. His study further showed that the link between rivalry and economic conflict generalized to violent conflict across 13 international target studies. Reinhard speculates that people support these conflict escalations because rivalries provide us with a source of meaning.

“One of the ideas that we’re exploring right now is whether rivals are actually incorporated into a group’s identity and sense of self,” said Reinhard, who is currently exploring this concept through the Israel/Iran conflict with Israeli professor Gilad Hirschberger. “Normally, we think about other groups as being something separate from who we are, and we try to distinguish ourselves from them.” But Reinhard says a history of conflict can become just as much a part of our self-concept as a history of cooperation. In a sense, we are who we are, because they are who they are. And the rivalry between us forces us both to bring out our best game. 

But what happens when that’s no longer the case? “That might be the thing that flips a rival to an enemy,” said Reinhard. “If you no longer consider them to be part of your self-concept, then they’re the enemy, and that might change the way you behave toward them, because it no longer feels like you’re losing part of yourself.”

All of these elements — competition, rivalry, conflict, and a history of shared experiences — are part of the business world, which is why Reinhard is excited to be conducting his postdoctoral research at Gies. Reinhard, who earned a master’s and PhD in social psychology at the University of Virginia, joins Gies from the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he just completed a postdoctoral research appointment. Here, he’ll be working with Denise Lewin Loyd, associate dean for equity and associate professor of business administration, whose research focuses on groups and teams, status, diversity, social identity, and ethics.

Reinhard says he looks forward to pursuing his research interest in the business setting. “Sometimes within academic psychology, you really have to go out of your way to make sure your research translates to the real world,” said Reinhard, “But in the business context, you're already operating within the real world. So, I will get to see some of these ideas that I'm interested in, like rivalry, competition, social norms, and identity in these much more impactful and societally relevant domains.”