Competition - be it in school, during sports, at work, in politics, or at home - is very much an ever present component of our lives and certainly something we can all benefit from understanding better. Bronson and Merryman have made a credible start at explaining how we compete differently, to what extent this is genetically predetermined and which areas of our handling of competitive pressure remain to be shaped by conscious acts - ours or those of coaches, parents, bosses, etc.
Like the authors' previous joint work - Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong - the book heavily relies on up to date science but never strays too deep. This means it will more than satisfy the casual reader but may leave people, who have previously already explored the topic somewhat, not completely satisfied.
Just like in Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong one can only compliment the authors for not trying to squeeze a myriad examples into a limited framework, which would make it both bloated and repetitive. While there are plenty of examples given, they are used to develop the topic further, to explore the effects of our genetic endowment, as well as those that come from our nurturing in the formative years, and from the competitive context we are put into.
The real value of the book in my eyes also lies in comparing and contrasting different approaches, as well as indirectly advising how to ameliorate our inborn attitudes to competition. One for instance learns how boys compete differently from girls, and what effect that has on career success later on in life; what type of educational environment is most suited to which gender child, as well as to which competitive profile; how sports success can be achieved even by people who are more worriers than warriors; why so few women actually enter high level politics or top managerial positions (it is not exclusively discrimination that plays a role (and this is not just a chauvinistic male position, as one of the authors is herself female)), etc.
So if you want to better understand why certain people - be they your children, partner, friends and family, colleagues or yourself - compete in specific ways, or get tips on how to alter the environment to make them or yourself more successful at it, the book is a very good start. It will not be an in-depth scientific treatise (a full list of references is provided for those interested in further reading) but will probably allow you to dip your toes into the topic sufficiently deeply, to at least seriously consider further 'competition' choices more thoroughly, or to understand the outcomes better.
"Let the young men now arise and compete before us." -- 2 Samuel 2:14 (NKJV)
Top Dog is that rare book that combines psychology with physiology while also attempting to provide some practical insights that readers can apply. I believe that those who are looking for physiological information will probably like this book the best. The psychological insights are next best. The practical lessons come next in value.
Those who think that competition has been downplayed too much as a mechanism for social improvement will find powerful arguments here for ways that vying with others can lead to accomplishing much more.
For me the big takeaway message was that individuals perform best in quite different ways: Some need to be part of a team; others need maximum stress, many need very little stress, and still others need to identify with a purpose. While I was quite aware of what my own best combination is, I hadn't given much thought to how that might differ for others. While I'm helping students prepare for competition in the future, I intend to pay much more attention to first understanding what is optimal for each one. That was well worth the time I spent reading the book.
While it was good to know a lot more about the various hormones and their effects on competitors, the book had a lot more of that information than I can use or interested me. If you are a student of physiology, you may well have the opposite reaction that much more should have been included.
If you want to get a quick sense of the book's practical tips, they are efficiently summarized from the bottom of page 238 through 240. If you decide to read the book, you may find those three pages to be a good place to go when you decide to refresh your appreciation of the book.
I agreed with the argument that competition has more benefits than drawbacks. As a mechanism for helping most people to improve, it's hard to beat ... just because most people like to win so much. The book's advice will help those who find competition overly stressful to adopt a more effective approach.
I thought the writing was quite good and easy to follow, being much better than in many popular science books.