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No Contest: Case Against Competition Hardcover – 1 Apr 1990

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin; First Printing edition (1 April 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395393876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395393871
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.7 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 610,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Argues that competition is inherently destructive and that competitive behavior is culturally induced, counter-productive, and causes anxiety, selfishness, self-doubt, and poor communication. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Life for us has become an endless succession of contests. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mark on 22 May 2009
Format: Paperback
I am amazed that only one previous review of this book has been posted, because it explores a fascinating subject in depth and makes a convincing argument with a wealth of supporting references.

Alfie states his argument clearly. He defines 'competition' as the pursuit of mutually exclusive goals, including 'structural' competition in situations where people can only win in opposition to others, and 'internal' competition which gives people a sense that they must outdo one another. In the first chapter he shows that this competition is not inevitable, including a forceful argument that competitive behaviour is not an unavoidable aspect of 'human nature'.

One of his key arguments is that competition is a learned behaviour. He argues that we can learn to cooperate rather than compete. He criticises competitive sport and dedicates one chapter to argue that cooperative activities can be more fun. He gives particular attention to competition in school education and uses one chapter to challenge the argument that competition is character building. He also challenges competition in the economy, politics, and even in the judicial system.

In some places the book specifically addresses the American (US) culture of competition in the early 1980s, but now the book is 25 years old and that culture has sadly been exported to much of the world. I found it totally relevant to current culture in the UK.

Finally, the first edition of this book was published in the early eighties, and the second edition merely adds an additional chapter, so it would be interesting to know how the research has developed since then. I would like to find some further reading, but very few people seem to have written about this fundamental issue.
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By Mark Salmon on 2 Aug. 2014
Format: Paperback
no complaints
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By David Pavett on 21 Jan. 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
havent read it yet, but it looks o.k.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 42 reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Did Adam Smith Get It Wrong? 23 Feb. 2007
By mlund - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Having just finished No Contest: The Case Against Competition, fully twenty years after its first publication, I feel like someone coming late to a party, only to find few have arrived before me in what I expected to be a crowded gathering. Scanning the divergent and often passionate Amazon reviews offered on this provocative, original, and gentle but thoroughly radical critique of our society, I felt compelled to add my voice and ask, simply, did Adam Smith get it wrong?

However you might answer that question, now or after reading No Contest, you will agree that the implications of your own answer are considerable, for you and, perhaps, for us all. Your ideas about competition are fundamental to the way you will live your life each day, to the type of world you will work to create, and to how you will feel about and treat those of us who are around you.

Across twenty-five reviews of No Contest spanning a decade, the book garners a solid four out of five stars, but there is a divergence in these reviews that is telling and important. Amidst mostly five-star ratings and words of praise and encouragement for what is an excellent work, consistently about twenty percent of reviewers rank this book very low and offer commentary that is quite dismissive. These latter reviews seem, in some cases, to lack poignancy and clear expression, an infraction Kohn cannot be accused of, and some are quite hostile.

I bring up this persistent disparity of reactions to No Contest because it underscores a central hypothesis of Kohn's work: that competition and the competitive structures around us alters us. Kohn's assembled research suggests that competition makes us reactive, aggressive, closed to new ideas and inimical to alternatives, bound to the rules of the games we are made to play.

Competition, Kohn argues, makes us less sensitive, less productive, less creative, and perhaps less intelligent. Competition narrows our focus and makes us less able to see our frames of reference for what they are - frames. Ones that are in truth malleable and expandable, and as such, ultimately indefensible. Life in competitive structures, life in a competitive mindset, may even make us less engaged in life itself, as it almost certainly makes us less engaged in others and their lives.

I read No Contest on the recommendation of a friend, after a brief but lasting conversation on the practical virtues of cooperation. As a friend, even if we have not met, I will recommend this book to you too. I make this recommendation with the certainty that No Contest will at least give you an interesting perspective on modern life, that it might provoke and irritate you, and that it may, as other reviewers have noted, cause you to wake up and live differently each day. I certainly feel this third way, and think the book is worth reading, simply given its potential to affect you in this way.

As a book that compiles a diverse body of research, No Contest is technically impressive, especially given its seemingly uncharted subject. Even after twenty years, and even as it is disagreeable to some, I found the book extremely well planned, elegantly written, carefully reasoned, and finely passionate. For some, No Contest will be worth having for the bibliography alone, which is extensive. In fact, its assembled evidence and the startling conclusions they lead to is part of the potentially mind-altering nature of the book. No Contest was not what I expected, and likely will not be what you expect now, with divergent views and passionate reviews apt to continue for some time to come.

A few reviewers have criticized No Contest for not offering enough practical guidance, but I am content to be left to think, and think practically, about its many ideas and conclusions, on my own and with others. We all live in a practical world and so do need work at what we value, but we also need to wonder a bit: if cooperation is superior to competition in category after category of human affairs, why is there simply not more of it around us? Some might argue that cooperation is in fact there, but masked by the heavy and obvious icons of competitiveness that frame modern materialist society.

As I am affected and willing to consider this and the many other important questions the book engenders, perhaps you will be too. Game theory and computer modeling of the last two decades, coming after this book was published, may offer insights into the conditions under which competitive and cooperative structures win out, but as yet not a clear and recognizable path to the states of sustaining cooperation posed as possible and desirable by Kohn. (I would welcome being googled and corrected on this last point.)

One last thought: beginning in the 1970s, the organizational psychologists Chris Argyris and Donald Schon wrote about empirically far more common "model I" group dynamics and, also empirically, far more effective "model II" behaviors. I always was comfortable with these neat non-labels, and thought I understood what they entailed, tacitly attributing the difference to levels of individual and group stress. After reading No Contest, though, I am now far more inclined to think these human patterns should rightly be renamed for what they really are: "competitive" and "cooperative" group dynamics. I'll leave you to consider this idea, important for people working with others and suggestive of what you will encounter with No Contest.

To end somewhat near where I began, let me finish by saying that No Contest is an awakening for many people and an irritant and even an outrage for a few, probably to all who are disciples of Adam Smith, or deacons in the world his ideas have wrought. No Contest stirred in me both a child and an old man, each wiser in the way children and elders can be wise - in their propensity for innocence and in their indifference to headstrong heads - and I hope No Contest will be this for you and more.
33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Warning: this book could change your life 6 Mar. 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
A friend recommended this to me because it changed her life. It is changing mine as well. Like the fish who has suddenly become aware of the water around him, I have become aware of the competitive environment in which we live - and how that environment is slowly poisoning us.
Kohn defines competition as "mutually exclusive goal attainment" - a situation where someone wins only if others lose. This type of structure, by its very nature, erodes human relationships. Kohn is not asking us to do away with incentives or tests - he is asking us to stop using them to determine a "winner." Kohn shows that people in a cooperative setting will attain a goal with more efficiency and creativity than people in a competitive setting.
But what about market competitiveness and the benefits for consumers? Yes, but think of the goal, the driving force behind this: making more money than the next company. That means polluting the environment (cleaner is usually more expensive), exploiting workers (the so-called minimum wage is not enough for anyone to live on), and even committing fraud. As Kohn explains, the nature of competition means that the goal becomes the most important thing. Everything else is merely an obstacle; everyone else an enemy.
Sometimes I wish I hadn't read this book - it has thrown my view of the world upside down and made me question my work at a management consulting company. But I realize this is just the initial discomfort one feels after walking out of a dark room into the sunlight. The glare may hurt at first, but after your eyes have adjusted, you appreciate the new world you see around you. This book may hurt at first, but give it a chance and see if it doesn't change your world and your relationships for the better.
45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
The competitive mindset can be unlearned 3 Sept. 2001
By Coert Visser - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this inspiring and well-researched book Alfie Kohn describes how we, in our compulsion to rank ourselves against one another, turn almost everything into a contest (at work, at school, at play, at home). Often, we assume that working toward a goal and setting standards for ourselves can only take place if we compete against others. By perceiving tasks or play as a contest we often define the situation to be one of MEGA: mutually exclusive goal attainment.
This means: my success depends on your failure. Is this wise? No! Is this inevitable? No! This book brilliantly shows how: 1) competitiveness is NOT an inevitable feature of human nature (in fact, human nature is overwhelmingly characterised by its opposite - co-operation), 2) superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence (because competition often distracts people from the task at hand, the collective does usually not benefit from our individual struggles against each other), 3) competition in sports might be less healthy than we usually think because it contributes to the competitive mindset (while research shows that non-competitive games can be at least as enjoyable and challenging as competitive ones), 4) competition does not build good character; it undermines self esteem (most competitors lose most of the time because by definition not everyone can win), 5) competition damages relationships, 6) a competitive mindset makes transforming of organizations and society harder (those things requiring a collective effort and a long-term commitment).
I think many people reading this book will recognize in themselves their tendency to think competitively and will feel challenged and inspired to change. And that's a good thing. Our fates are linked. People need to, and can choose to, build a culture in which pro-social behaviors and a co-operative mindset are stimulated. The competitive mindset can be unlearned. By developing a habit to see and define tasks as co-operative we can defy the usual egoism/altruism dichotomy: by helping the other person you are helping yourself.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
No Contest 16 April 2005
By A. Maravelas - Published on
Format: Paperback
I read Kohn's book 10 years ago and it changed the way I think about the world. Our society is becoming more uncivil and rude, sports and schools more violent. Kohn predicted it, and his work becomes more relevent every day.

Studies of school shootings by Dr. James Gilligam, M.D., concluded that in every case the perpetrators had been subjected to years of ridicule and humiliation. Elliot Aronson of Stanford calls the atmosphere in public high schools "poisonous.' Aronson believes that the primary cause of hostile school environments is wide-spread obsession with competition. Everyone but the athletes and cheerleaders becomes "rejects." Aronson proved that bullying could be stopped (within two weeks!) after he convinced teachers to ditch their competitive framework and assign cooperative projects. The new structure broke down cliques between kids from different racial and ethnic groups, and from varying beliefs. They did something unheard of in modern life--they became friends!

Kohn's book is a wake-up call for every educator, parent and business person who swallows the competition paradigm without question. Research has shown repeatedly that cooperation is better for performance, self-esteem and relationships. Despite the mythology around competition it DOESN"T build self-confidence. Competition is linked to shallowness and anxiety. (Skill attainment and good parenting build self-confidence).

Ask yourself; "What PRICE have your kids paid in the competitive paradigm?" Are they healthier, more happy, more self-confident, kinder, more curious, well rounded, more interested in learning? What interests have they given up? What friendships ended? Are they thriving or anxious about the next event?

There are other ways. Competition is JUST a belief system. Ask a modern biologist or anthropologist. They don't believe anymore that competition is the primary organizing principle. Life is fundamentally adaptive and cooperative. Since Darwin's theories were turned into "survival of the fittest"--a term coined by Spencer, an economist, and one that Darwin never used, we've been blindly following a paradigm without data.

Competition is toxic and deep down we know it. The research has been done, the answers are in. If you're open-minded enough to question the beliefs you were taught in 5th grade, you'll read this book.

Kohn's had the courage to stand up and say, "There's a better way. "

He should be a national hero.
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
The definitive rebuke of competition to date. 1 Aug. 1998
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Alfie Kohn has written a masterwork of social psychology in his book, No Contest. Assailing on of our society's most sacred cows, he argues convincingly that common sense notions of competition -- that it is innate, is fun, builds character, and increases productivity -- are all myths. Drawing upon a voluminous amount of sociological and psychological research, Kohn slowly dissects the seedy world of competition and exposes its unsavory reality. Competition hurts productivity in all but the most mindless of tasks; it does build character, but invariably the wrong kind; it is not an innate human instinct but a product of controllable social forces. Last, the notion of competition being fun is the greatest insult and immorality to humanity. For the whole point of MEGA (mutually-exclusive goal attainment -- the fundamental component of competition) is to succeed based on the failure of someone else. Unfortunately, Kohn gives the reader little to go on in the way of! changing from a competitive to a cooperative society, except that people should shun competition and promote cooperative behaviors -- something easier said than done considering most competition is forced upon us. (Kohn offers more in the way of solutions in his other book, Punished by Rewards). Still, Kohn provides tremendous food for thought; and if his objective was to force the reader to, at the very least, reconsider the dubious value of competition in social interactions and institutions, he has done his job exceedingly well.
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