- Competing against a rival offers a unique psychological prize: the chance to beat someone familiar whose abilities are frustratingly matched with our own.
- Rivalry can be highly motivating, but it can also impair people’s judgment and bias their recall of events.
- Rivalry can lead to corrupt behavior: thinking about a rival led people to later lie about their performance on an unrelated task.
Even before a game begins, an athlete’s body changes: heart rate increases, hormones surge and beads of sweat dapple the skin. Competition is such a visceral experience that the mere anticipation of a challenge excites our instincts to fight. These biological responses are even more pronounced when people face an opponent they have come to know and despise, an opponent they must battle again and again—a rival. In a 2003 study psychologists at Northumbria University in England found much higher testosterone levels in soccer players preparing to play against a team they considered an extreme rival than in those matched up with a moderate rival.
Rivalry differs from other kinds of competition in its intimacy. It offers contenders a psychological prize people cannot win in other contexts: the chance to beat someone obnoxiously familiar, someone whose abilities and traits are frustratingly matched with their own.
This article was originally published with the title Meeting Your Match.