Examining Competitiveness in Controversial Conversations

Unlike the other clusters of conversational behaviors we have analyzed, “competitiveness” did not emerge from our initial factor analysis. When we began comparing the conversational experiences of women and men, however, we noticed that some of the most dramatic differences were for behaviors that had not initially been grouped in any of our clusters—most notably for “trying to win.” After some more investigation, we discovered a high level of correlation among student responses to “Participants hold fast to their beliefs,” “Participants question the expertise of those with whom they disagree,” “Participants focus on the weakest aspects of one another’s arguments,” “The right side wins the argument,” and “Participants try to win.” We also discovered a very significant level of inverse correlation between students’ personal scores for civility and students’ personal scores for competitiveness.

The difference between civility and competitiveness, however, is that while most students have clear ideas about civility and incivility, they are quite ambivalent about competitive behaviors. All but two of the behaviors included in our civility composite received ideal scores above 4 (very positive) or below 2 (very negative), while mean ideal scores for competitive behaviors ranged from 2.5 to 3.3, with a median score of 3 (neutral) in every instance. Student assessments of how common competitive behaviors are on campus similarly tended toward the middle of the scale, although we did register a significant ideal-real gap for “trying to win,” which received an ideal score of 2.56 and a real score of 3.96. Personal competitiveness scores revealed another contrast with civility: while even the least civil students typically see civility as a good thing, students who engage in competitive behaviors generally do so because they believe that competitiveness is a positive feature of conversation. The most relevant gap, in other words, is not between the ideal and the real, but between students who value competitiveness and those who do not (see Table 15, Components of Dialogue and Conversational Behaviors).

Our most competitive students, in fact, have a number of qualities in common. They are disproportionately male, but not overwhelmingly so. They are more likely to be white and Catholic than our student body as a whole. Many play intercollegiate sports, and many are political science majors. They are also much more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than our student body as a whole, and to score higher on a variety of measures of political and religious conservatism (see Table 34: A Profile of Competitive and Less Competitive Students).

This group of students is especially interesting in light of our desire to foster a more courageous campus culture. One might expect highly competitive students to have the courage to initiate conversations when others are reluctant to do so, but in our surveys we did not find a negative (or positive) correlation between competitive and flight behaviors. It may be that these students do not know how to enter into conversations in which their peers expect dialogue rather than debate. On the other hand, we did find a positive correlation between personal competitiveness scores and personal scores for common ground and objectivity (both clusters of behaviors universally regarded as positive), as well as for values (a cluster of behaviors that is viewed more ambivalently by our students) (see Table 35, Competitiveness and Other Conversational Factors).

Despite their positive qualities, highly competitive students report a disproportionate share of negative experiences in the classroom. Half of our highly competitive students believe that some of our professors will not give As to students who disagree with them, while only ten percent of the least competitive students hold this belief. Highly competitive students are seven times as likely to say that they have frequently been penalized for participating in controversial conversations, and three times as likely to say they have frequently hidden their true beliefs in classes taught by professors with whom they disagreed (see Table 36, The Costs of Competition). The correlation between incivility and competitiveness cannot explain these differences, moreover, for students with low civility scores do not report as many of these particular negative experiences as students with high competitiveness scores (see Table 37, Competitive and Uncivil Students in the Classroom).

It would appear, in short, that highly competitive students are stigmatized to a degree that is not commensurate with their actual behavior—and that this stigmatization may prevent them from contributing to a more courageous campus. The stigma may reflect the fact that competitiveness is correlated not only with incivility, but also with political and religious conservatism. Since CSB/SJU professors tend to be both more liberal and more negatively disposed toward competitive behaviors than CSB/SJU students, those students who are both competitive and conservative may face an especially hostile classroom environment.

If this is so, it is quite unfortunate, because competitive conservatives in particular may have something to teach the rest of us. As it happens, the correlation between incivility and competitiveness is much more pronounced among liberals than among conservatives. When we narrowed our analysis to focus only on conservatives, the effect size was cut in half, while among liberals it nearly doubled. Since all of this is based on self-reporting, of course, this may merely mean that conservatives are less able to recognize the uncivil qualities of their competitive behaviors. But the behavior of conservative students at public events sponsored by Controversial Conversations suggests a more hopeful explanation. Conservatives may simply express civility in ways that are more compatible with vigorous debate—such as dressing formally and coming to the conversation with carefully prepared arguments and evidence. Though the conservatives’ formal civility need not be embraced by everyone, we would do well to ensure that at the least it is not stigmatized on our campuses (see Table 38, Competitiveness and Other Conversational Factors: Conservatives Only, and Table39, Competitiveness and Other Conversational Factors: Liberals Only).