The Challenge of Survival

The tendency to compete, and furthermore to triumph and prevail, is a natural and even inherent inclination which -like all other human instincts, has enabled humankind’s survival until now. Perhaps this very will to succeed is the root cause of mankind’s constant state of provocation. But why does achievement and success feel pleasant while failure results in a negative state of mind? Researchers believe the basic motive behind human rivalry originated with the beginnings of hominal existence –the Austrabpithecus, the first humans to stand on two legs more than 3 million years ago.[1] It was during this time that Earth’s axis of rotation shifted such that the interval in which the planet slanted in the opposite direction to the sun protracted. This resulted in a general cooling of Earth’s temperature, and consequently a portion of the moisture existing in the natural water cycle froze and so exited the hydrosphere and instead accumulated and stabilized at the earth’s poles. Those species which depended on the temperate jungles for survival became extinct and the rest evolved to adapt to the new climate.[2] These modifications affected our ancestor’s lifestyle and nourishment patterns, and locating and obtaining sustenance became a constant struggle. A related point of interest is that the developed human body is designed and optimized to react much the same as our 3 million year old ancestors.

In any challenge, whether an interview for a coveted job, sports competitions, auto racing, pre-occupations of the mind, even computer games, etc. when concluding in victory, trigger very specific responses in the body which are very rewarding and which prompt the system for a new challenge. Dopamine is a chemical which, when released, activates the brain’s central gratification system allowing the body to experience intense pleasure. Subsequently, Endorphins are released throughout the body which activates a sense of satisfaction and delight as well as combatting fatigue. Endorphins also impede communicating pain to the brain. In other words, if in the process of a struggle the body sustains physical injury while the mind identifies imminent triumph, pain is not felt by the body. Adrenaline and Testosterone which flow in the competitor’s body augment the sense of empowerment and accelerate recovery and sobriety. Breathing deepens, heart beat accelerates and a greater amount of oxygen is transferred to the muscles and brain.

However, maintaining a continuous state of competitiveness or competing with an insignificant rival or predicting the inability to win is obviously aggravating. This issue and its implications have been alluded to in scientific circles where various definitions of ‘contentment’ have been categorized. In general a sense of achievement and satisfaction is only tangible when a balance is maintained between skill levels on the one hand, and excitement and anxiety on the other. Imagine a tennis match where one side is a tennis champion and the other has never played before; the resulting match is frustrating for both members. The champion is completely qualified and dominant in the field, yet as a result of his rival’s incompetence, the game holds no interest for the champion. Adversely, the amateur who has never played before and lacks any pertinent skills is afflicted with anxiety and angst, since unlike the bodily reactions to victory, failure has negative and even detrimental effects.  In order to better understand these negative effects the reactions of internal physical systems must be analyzed. In the case of defeat, chemical responses like dopamine and endorphins which normally trigger gratification and empower the body to prevail and resist during a challenge will detract. Even standard posture tends to sag and average aches and pains are felt in an exaggerated way. Contrary to a sense of achievement, in time of defeat a stress hormone is released which is known as Cortisol. When this hormone is combined with the effects of adrenaline in the blood system, feelings of anxiety and even extreme fear are triggered. If the conflict is perceived to be detrimental, the instinctive response -which is universal to all creatures, is to become immobilized. Any nonessential functions are frozen in order to better preserve the brain. The Vegas nerve also known as the tenth cranial nerve immediately moderates heartbeat, blood flows from the spleen and an extremely unpleasant sensation is felt in the stomach, muscles slacken and limbs become numb. Yet one final bodily function remains active, which encompasses an important lesson.  The physiological stress response of defeat activates the Hippocampus which enhances negative feedback regulation, re-enforcing the damaging impact of the defeat. Subsequently the Amygdala located in the limbic system processes the emotional response and stores the memory of defeat in the brain. This sequence of reactions is an evolutionary response to assure the context of defeat is recorded in order to prevent its recurrence.

People often display lower performance levels when under evaluation. In Spence and Helmreich’s opinion, progress is a result of three agents: skills, commitment and competitiveness.  Skills and commitment assure improvement in any given situation; yet contrary to this hypothesis, rivalry is not always conducive to growth and in actuality, inclination towards competition is damaging to progresst. Alfie Kohn offers multiple cases from various cultures where children opt for a team work paradigm as opposed to a competitive paradigm and further disputes that competition is generally not considered an optimal technique for achieving a sense of well-being.

The football coach Vince Lombardi stated in a 1968 interview (with): “Winning isn’t everything, the struggle to win is everything.”

Interpersonal rivalry has been proven less constructive than self-motivation, and attitudes can be generally categorized into those who aspire to develop skills and proficiency and those who ‘need to win’. People who covet unrestrained success often have a negative disposition towards themselves and the world around them. They lack the skills needed to contend with daily pressures. Rivalry might result in negative self-assessment, such as not living up to the general standards, feeling like a failure, being exposed to others’ negative feedback, as well as general anxiety and inquietude.  Those who have an inherent tendency towards constructive advancement generally embrace challenges and find complicated tasks more fulfilling than effortless ones. But those who question themselves in times of defeat and consequently reduce their efforts for accomplishment believe less in their own worth relative to those who accept defeat and effortlessly move on to the next challenge.

Impulses which have formulated and evolved to prolong survival typically respond to the ‘what?’ question. But alongside the aforementioned issues, a substantial difference between man and all the rest of creation is the aspiration to improve the quality of social life, and this issue primarily responds to the ‘how?’ question. For instance, survival depends on nourishment. ‘What’ should be done? Eat. But how this takes place is an essential aspect of human life. Consequently an individual who emphasizes culture and civility in himself and his surroundings values the ‘how’ of all activities and experiences. Rivalry has also asserted itself in the professional world resulting in commotion between all factions. The architecture and design world has not escaped this fate and the question of ‘how’ as previously expounded loses none of its validity.

Architectural competitions in Iran are often scrutinized and critiqued, and there are few Iranian architects who withhold their opinions on the matter, to the extent that even if a very cursory internet search is made, volumes of information can be found on the subject.  The Management of Architectural and Urban Competitions Comprehensive Regulations Handbook date of approval signed on March 11, 2003 in the 513th meeting of the High Council of The Cultural Revolution and the Management of Iranian Architectural and Urban Competitions Guide, serial No. 240 of the National Planning and Management Bureau can be found alongside the most trivial and general opinions of varied architects.

Developing healthy competition, re-enforcing scholastic enthusiasm, promoting cultural endeavors, providing a constructive atmosphere for introducing new and unknown talents, creating opportunities for selecting superior designs, utilizing varying strengths, cultivating opportunities for employment and designer recognition, lined up with negative points such as augmented expenses for management as well as the participants lack of direct communication between the designer and management during the design process, etc. which have been thoroughly elaborated on in the regulations handbook which was previously introduced; ultimately proves that in the majority of the competitions held in Iran, even the most fundamental stipulations are not observed. A case in point, in one competition a First Place award was simply not announced. [3] In another competition, one of the judges was also the manager of a participating firm.[4] In a competition lacking the second place winner, the first and third place rankings were representatives of the competition management. [5]  The participation of first-degree relatives to the judges and acquiring third place ranking is among numerous such examples which can be outlined.[6] In another competition the competition organizer also participated in the competition and was awarded second place. In addition, one of the participants personally explained their project for the judges over a two day interval during the competition design and assessment period while submitting material and documentation which did not coincide with that which was delineated in the competition brief. [7] Undisputedly, the most influential element in a competition is the judges. Throughout history, the critique of an architectural design in societies which do not utilize standard and established methods of assessment are particularly questionable and obvious. The ability to realize the requisites of a project on the one hand while acknowledging innovation and novelty on the other –which often is a denial of those very prerequisites as well as the design criteria, is no simple task.

In these abnormal circumstances where professional rivalry has overstepped all natural and healthy bounds, one cannot expect natural responses to victory or defeat. Values and worth have been interchanged to such an extent that even the status of the victor and the defeated are interchangeable. Does the winner benefit from dopamine and truly feels the victor?  Is the hippocampus activated in the defeated, reminding them to not repeat past mistakes?

[1]  The MDI Collection. Human Instinct.


[3] Persian Standard New Building Design Competition. February 2013. (article 8-3-7 of the Architecture and Urban Design Competition Management Handbook, serial No. 240 National Planning and Management Bureau states that “the jury committee must ultimately announce the design worthy of First Place position and that winners cannot commence from second place. In circumstances where the jury decides no design is worthy of first place, after presenting valid documentation and proof to the management, another round must be appended to the competition..”

[4]  Pasargad Bank Central Branch Design Competition, July 2013.  Article 20-1-7 judges of a competition should not be a CEO, board member, shareholder or employee of the companies and institutions that have participated in the contest.

[5] Communications Building Design Competition, 2012. Article 1-9 states that competition organizers and representatives as well as the competition counsel and their assistants are prohibited from participating in the competition.

[6]  Iranian Architecture Awards, October 2013.  Article 19-1-7 states that first-degree relatives of the competition participants cannot be on the jury committee of that competition.

[7] Padideh Kish Tourism Complex Design Competition, February 2013. Article 7-3-12 states that any manner of communication between the judges and competition participants outside the constrained limits circumscribed in the competition rulebook is prohibited for the duration of the competition design and assessment process. Article 6-11 states that any submitted material and documentation which doesn’t coincide with that which is delineated in the design brief will result in the elimination of the relative participants.