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Escalation of competition leads to conflict in competitive networks of F1 drivers

A new study has revealed that people with similar social status in similar age groups are more likely to clash with each other. This rivalry could likely lead to taking more risks in fair weather conditions.

Competition, while is often seen as beneficial, can escalate into destructive conflict. This occurs, for instance, when athletes sabotage each other or when rival executives get caught up in a career-derailing fight. These escalations, which lead to conflict, are especially likely among similar-status competitors, who are fraught with discordant understandings of who is superior to whom.

A research team of KAIST, the US Treasury, INSEAD, and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) examined the link between status similarity and conflict as well as the conditions under which this link holds by using panel data on Formula 1 races from 1970 through 2014. For the study, the research team analyzed a total of 506 collision cases by 355 F1 drivers over 45 years.

The team found that similar-status F1 drivers are more prone to collide, especially when they are age-similar, performing well, and feeling safe. When these boundary conditions are met, structural equivalence likely triggers antagonism among interactants.

This research deepens the understanding of when violent conflict emerges and when prevention efforts are called for. Professor Lee from the Graduate School of Culture Technology at KAIST said, “People are not sure about their identity when facing competitors of a similar status. People tend to confirm their own stature by beating an opponent.”

The team investigated the factors that escalate competition into dangerous conflict. Recently, sociological theorizing claims that such escalations are particularly likely in pairs of structurally equivalent actors who have the same relations with the same third parties. Using the F1 data, the research team modeled the probability that two drivers would collide on a racetrack as a function of their structural equivalence in a dynamic network of competitive relationships.

Professor Lee added, “We fully understand that the drivers who ranked first and second are likely to have more conflict because they meet more frequently and know each other well. We also regulated all those conditions and confirmed that our hypothesis worked right throughout the data analysis.”

Professor Lee, who wrote his doctoral thesis on tennis tournaments for identifying the ideal organizational structure, said that sports tournaments would be best optimized for comprehending the nature of organizational structures. Tournaments, even those with rankings based on objective criteria, are in fact intensely social. However, most prior empirical work in this area has relied only on official information on competitors’ performance, thus failing to capture the important elements of past competitive encounters.

“It is not so easy to obtain data on rivalries and conflicts inside an organization. However, in sports, the performances of athletes are all recorded and the data can be utilized as a very objective methodology for understanding social relations and their structural affects.

Official positions in tournaments, although clearly informative, can also be reductionist -excluding the emotionally salient features of competitors’ histories and forcing competitors together on a scalar metric, even when the competitors themselves do not see each other as comparable.

The results from sample-split models are important for social networking research, which has paid scant attention to the contextual conditions in which structural equivalence is most consequential for social action — especially hostile social actions.

The study suggests that new work will benefit from examining how demographic overlap, network stability, and perceived costs of conflict “activate” a structurally equivalent relationship to the point that it is not only salient but also conducive to conflict.

Professor Lee said, “Sociology mainly investigates the positive results of social success and collaboration. This study shows that any violent activities, including homicide, also have something to do with organizational and social structural equivalence.”

This study was co-led by Professor Matthew Bothner from ESMT in Germany, Professor Henning Piezunk from INSEAD in France, and Dr. Richard Haynes from the US Treasury and was featured at the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA) in March.

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