An international study digs into the relationship between competition and anxiety among high-school students
The OECD distinguishes between external motivation, produced by pressure from others, and intrinsic motivation “sparked by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself”. Its study found that pupils who call themselves ambitious—which it describes as a proxy for self-driven effort—are less likely to say they feel anxious about a test than those who do not. Conversely, students who said they aspired to be one of the best students in their class—which the OECD interprets as being motivated primarily by their rank among peers—tended to report more anxiety than their less competitive classmates.
And anxiety, in turn, tends to reduce academic performance. Although a handful of places, notably Singapore, display strong test scores despite high levels of competitiveness and anxiety, most countries near the top of the anxiety scale, such as the Dominican Republic, had below-average results on the PISA science assessment. In contrast, those that displayed low levels of reported competitiveness and anxiety also had strong exam results, like the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. In the OECD’s words, motivation driven primarily by outsiders can lead to “disabling perfectionism”.