Super Chickens: A Lesson in Competition

CompetitionDr. William Muir has dedicated his research to group behavior and measuring productivity. That is, productivity of a more fowl persuasion.

Professor Muir is an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University. In the 1990s, Muir researched and advocated a group-selection theory of livestock breeding to obtain a kinder, gentler bird as a better egg-producing hen. He went on to refine his generational breeding approach by selecting individual hens for their passiveness, to protect the health and productivity of other hens in the pen.

What might we learn from Professor Muir ruffling some feathers with his fowl? Are organizations hatching the wrong ideas when it comes to success through competition? Without cooperation, do we run afowl (sic) in our productivity and subsequent success?

Counting Eggs

It all started with the eggs. Muir originally sought to improve egg-laying productivity by breeding the best producers (most eggs laid, AKA Super Chickens). His simple hypothesis was that by continually breeding the Super Chickens of the flock, generation after generation, one would progressively develop a better egg-laying hen population.

In his competition-focused experiment, Muir segregated two groups of hens: (1) One control group of nine average producing hens, which was left to reproduce for six generations, and (2) one test group of the Super Chickens, the highest quantity egg producers from each successive generation. The groups shared pens as they went about their lives besides producing eggs. Muir noted that productivity was easy to measure in such an experiment because it was so quantitative – all you had to do was count the eggs.

Pecking Order Disorder

At the end of Dr. Muir’s egg-citing study, the results where alarming. The control group chickens were plump, well-feathered, healthy, and actually producing more eggs than they were at the start of the experiment. However, the Super Chickens group was in disarray, or at least what was left of them. Only three hens survived after many were aggressively attacked by the other hens and pecked to death.

The outcome of Muir’s Super Chicken study has been used to draw parallels to education and the workplace. Specifically, where does the balance of competition and cooperation land? While they may not be either/or applications, experts repeatedly emphasize, like the Super Chickens, that cooperation is the better model. Nevertheless, most business, educational, and even parenting models seem to put all their eggs in the competition basket.

While competition is certainly not all bad, business models and group productivity may be best founded in cooperation as the alternative. A group of individuals implementing teamwork to collaborate on a mutual goal can drive success.

As Margaret Heffernan describes in her TED Talk about Muir’s study, she draws comparisons of the Super Chicken Model to businesses and their structures. Companies seem to continue to give the most powerful in the room all the resources and all the power, only to come to find the result is just the same as in Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction, and waste.

If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work. And a richer way to live.  ―Margaret Heffernan

Cooperation Compounds Success Over Time

So, that’s where social capital steps in. Social capital creates value for the individual AND the individual’s place within the group, i.e. how that individual is involved in the team working toward the common goals. Based in cooperation, social working environments grow and compound over time, leading to further productivity. Individuals form a higher degree of social sensitivity to other perspectives and share equally in their opinions and contributions. Then, energy starts to become applied to progressing with each other, rather than on just one’s self.

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off. ―Franklin D. Roosevelt

Heffernan draws a connection between the failure of the Super Chickens competitive structure and the need for social capital to develop over time. For once time is allowed to compound the joint working relationships, the Super Chickens of the past are not only gone, it becomes difficult to identify the standouts because everyone in the organization really matters.

So, take a moment to reflect on how far you have come through collaboration. How you have worked better in a friendly environment, when you have gotten to know your co-workers in order to develop a more dynamic team. Just think how far we as a whole can go – to continue the analogy, how many eggs we can produce –  if we just stop trying to be Super Chickens and build our social capital.

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3 thoughts on “Super Chickens: A Lesson in Competition

  1. Thanks for access to the study and its result. I am not able to understand why the super egg laying hens were more competitive and also more aggressive towards one another.

    1. The “super chickens” produced the most eggs in their group by aggressively attacking and competing for resources with the other chickens in their group, not because they had a trait that allowed them to produce more eggs per unit resource than other chickens. It seems the in-going hypothesis was the super chickens would not have a negative effect on the other chickens in their group to produce more eggs individually, they would simply produce more eggs per unit of resource provided, and then the breeder could select for this trait of more eggs per unit resource. However, the researchers discovered the super chickens were producing more eggs than their counterparts through aggressive behaviors, hoarding resources and thereby causing the health of the other chickens to suffer (and therefore produce fewer eggs than the “super-producer”). Instead of selecting for a trait that turned less resource into more eggs, aggressive behaviors were selected for, until in the end, the “super chickens” were all aggressive, resource-hoarders that caused the demise of their group.

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