The need to balance competition and cooperation reflects the need to balance autonomy and connectivity. To maintain our autonomy we must compete and strive to improve ourselves. If others around us are more effective than we are, they will gain a higher share of the resources needed for life and we will become less effective. When we cooperate with others and connect, we become more effective. Focusing on cooperating often means losing the competitive edge and focusing on competing means we lose opportunities to cooperate. We tend to cooperate with others in our group and compete with those outside.

Competition is about individuals taking responsibility for their own lives and doing what is necessary to maintain their own wellbeing. It means not allowing others to walk over us. Competition is often seen as negative because it pits person against person, but it is vital if we are to progress in our lives. Competition is deeply embedded in our being. It is natural for us to compete with others either individually or as groups. All areas of life from business to sports to academic achievement have strong competitive drivers. Competition is a key driver in the process of evolution without which we would not be able to survive. Competition selects the fittest.

If we do not maintain our autonomy and control our power over ourselves, we become controlled by others. Any system, in which a significant portion of the agents are under the control of other agents, copes less effectively in its environment because of a loss of flexibility and diversity.

With each person striving to be fitter, the whole community becomes increasingly more effective. This is particularly so when wisdom, knowledge, and skills are passed from generation to generation. Competition often has pejorative overtones in our modern world, because the use of competition has become distorted. True competition is the rightful dancing partner to cooperation and absolutely vital for our survival.

Competition occurs when there is a scarcity of a resource. If resources are too freely available, we tend to sit back and continue the same habit patterns we have grown accustomed to. When there is not enough to fill everyone’s needs or desires, there must be some mechanism to decide who gains access to those resources. We compete for them. When there is a shortage, we strive to find new resources, develop new ways to gather the resources or more efficient ways to use the resources we have in order that we may become better able to survive and thrive in our environment.

The more the agents in a system express their individuality, the greater the variety in the system. The Law of Requisite Variety, formulated by W. Ross Ashby in 1956, states that the more variety there is in a system, the greater the resources it has to cope with perturbations from the outside environment. The variety of a system must be greater than the variety of the perturbation to the system in order that the system can maintain control over the environment and ensure its survival.

Ashby gives this example:

A guest is coming to dinner, but the butler does not know who. He knows only that it may be Mr A, who drinks only sherry or wine, Mrs B who drinks only gin or brandy, or Mr C who drinks only red wine, brandy, or sherry. In the cellar he finds he has only whiskey, gin, and sherry. Can he find something acceptable to the guest, whoever comes?

       (from Ashby, 1956; 11.4 ex. 4)

The butler’s ability to cope depends on how wide his range of drinks is he has available.

Competition also helps generate innovation and novelty that are vital to the survival of any complex system. Since the outside environment is continuously changing, a system that does not develop new ways of adapting to the environment will not survive. The more diversity there is in a system, the more likely it is that the system will have the resources to adapt to changing circumstances.

Competition must be balanced by co-operation. People can achieve more as a co-operative group than they can as individual people. Co-operation with others allows us to compete better against an external group but it requires sacrifice. We must give up some of our personal wishes in order that our actions can be aligned with those with whom we wish to co-operate. We do this because we perceive that the gains of co-operation outweigh the losses of personal freedom.

For example, sharing food means that each individual must give some of what they obtain to other group members rather than just eat it themselves. Making the sacrifice now means that later when they do not have enough food, someone else will give them food. It means a large catch is not wasted and everyone is more likely to survive. The young and the old, the injured, and the weak can continue to live and contribute to the wellbeing of the group. Short-term losses are made up for by long-term gains. It does open the possibility of people free riding on the contribution of others.

Whenever an individual member is in danger, they are more likely to survive if others of the group will come to their aid. Without this the group numbers would dwindle one by one until the group can no longer survive.

Co-operation makes some tasks easier. Lifting large loads is often much simpler with two people working together rather than two individuals working at the same task. Some individuals may be better at a particular task and it is more efficient for them to focus on what they each do well.

As well as a willingness to sacrifice, co-operation requires skill and organisation. The greater the level of co-operation, the greater the time and resources and the bigger the infrastructure required to maintain that co-operation. Each community member must be aware of their responsibilities to the group and be able to carry out their obligations. As the number of people in the group increases, the obligations on each member and the level of organisation necessary to maintain the co-operation increases.