The Differences Between Critical Thinking and Competitive Thinking

part I. Valid Reasons for competing

” I hope we can continue this cooperation on critical issues about the future of our country’s technological competitiveness. We must work together to encourage the creative talent that has made our country a leader in technology.”

Dan Lipinski, on the US

Critical thinking [en, wiki] is appreciated as a quality, the most sought-after way of thinking in the educational process.

Competitive thinking is also appreciated, especially in certain cultural and economic frameworks.

Even though critical thinking and competitive thinking can go hand in hand, they are not mutually exclusive, nor can one be considered better than the other. I notice mistakes in the interpretation of these concepts and in the thinking of those who use them.

Some might associate competitive thinking with social Darwinism, but in fact, the concept predates Darwin, so associating competitiveness with a natural rule that applies to all people is a huge mistake. And yet, what could be the purposes of competing?


1. To create quality.

As competitiveness [en, wiki], competitive thinking measures how companies, in capitalism, produce strategies to capture the attention of the consumer/user.

In this sense, the best way to use competitiveness is to the benefit of the end user, by offering a better product/service at a better price. This fact can happen either intentionally (this can be the company’s mission, to permanently improve services in favor of customers) or unintentionally (the result of competitiveness between two companies competing for market size, delivering, as a secondary benefit, the fulfillment of customer needs). However, to achieve this goal, companies must remain strategically focused on profit, not supremacy.

However, there is a tendency to use the client’s interest as an excuse, and the competition for supremacy becomes the real goal of the competition between organizations/people, and the needs of the consumer remain a lower priority. That brings us to the second possible case.


2. To prove superiority.

Any person, in a certain period of life, may it be during childhood, adolescence, youth, or old age, is driven to feel unique, significant, and important, by the desire to be better. The very idea of ​​”better” implies a comparison. When one engages in competition to be appreciated in comparison for the uttermost reason of being no. 1 (in something), then the temptation of disdain comes to mind. Disdain is the total lack of consideration for those categorized as weaker in a certain hierarchy.

Outranking the opponent (in competition) brings a certain joy, but only those who compete with themselves while competing with others truly win in the long run. Of course, in individualistic cultures, in the Balkans region [en, wiki] (including Romania), the misrepresentation of excessive competitiveness as a virtue happens a lot. In this case, we are not talking about strategy, but only about ego.


3. To provide expertise.

By “expert”, I mean those who offer extremely modern and advanced services at a higher level of competence. I mean those who have years of experience and a personality oriented towards their own profession. Such an expert, ideally, does not care about ego or market share. They are just looking for the work done to be as close to perfection as possible. You go the expert’s way or the highway, and that happens for very good reasons because the expert knows what’s best

(keep reading ↓)

Competitiveness is, in this situation, a field where “eagles dare” and “titans clash”, where the competition is not measured in holding the 1st place, or in revenues, but in the engineering of the performance system.

The strategy represents, for the experts, only part of their mission to take care of the markets, clients, and customers. However, an expert has a general perspective on what his facts entail, working at a highly specific level, the one that matters most.

Competitiveness in performance systems engineering, regardless of whether the system represents a business, an organization, a machine, or a specific procedure, has some different rules for measuring performance. The first rule is that the expert acts in competition with himself.


4. To generate leadership.

In these times, many will be leaders, as if it were a hype fashion, something cool to parade about. Leaders inspire individuals to do something that makes them better (without competing with anyone but themselves). They are aware of all the influences, systems, and strategies that operate in a complex world, subtly leaving their mark. The competition between leaders is measured by the impact they have and the results of those influenced. Such leaders do not think about competition, but about making a change. The competition is not only with themselves but also with all the challenges that overshadow those who follow them.

(keep reading ↓)

I think it would be fair to say that any legitimate purpose of competitive thinking falls into one of the four categories listed above:

  • to create quality,
  • to demonstrate superiority,
  • to provide expertise,
  • to generate leadership.

part II. How to (not) use critical thinking

To demonstrate that critical thinking is a skill that can be developed separately from competitive/cooperative thinking, I will exemplify, for each category, cases in which critical thinking is used constructively, respectively destructively (or not used at all).

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1. The strategists who provide quality. 

Constructive use of critical thinking: logical and strategic analysis of structural reality with relevant tools; design criteria for improvement; maintaining good intrapersonal communication; the willingness to self-criticize; applying creative methodologies; using a multidimensional analysis; using multiple points of view and perspectives; transforming data into procedures understandable by all; reconfiguring production or service delivery to increase efficiency; replication of success factors; elimination of losses; cash flow readjustment; finding the best solution; (sometimes) reverse engineering; creatively and appropriately matching demand with supply; project management; writing projects.

The destructive use of critical thinking: analyzing the situation with affordable instruments (which may not be the most appropriate instruments), finding the cheapest supplier; determining and assuming the costs of destruction and exploitation of the resources used to provide the product/service; relocation of markets with higher needs; readjustment of human resources; (sometimes) reverse engineering.

Failure to use critical thinking: corruption, bribery, turning employees into slaves, destroying natural resources for immediate profit, deceiving the audience.

(keep reading ↓)

Alternative use of critical thinking in a cooperative manner:

Crowdsourcing; crowdfunding; determining the negative effects brought by the pursuit of performance at all costs and increasing performance through social responsibility programs; creating a measurable difference for human resources involved in the delivery of products/services, determining and using key factors to improve workplace motivation; the design of teams that can work together; replacing key psychological aspects that make things better; mentoring; coaching; raising awareness; identifying prejudice, bias, self-deception, distortion, misinformation, propaganda, misinformation.


(continue reading after media ↓)

2. Aspirants to meaning (The wannabe-significants.)

Constructive use of critical thinking: determining the best channels and intervals for one’s own expression; logical argumentation of critical issues that may expose other products/services/ideas as lesser options; getting others to recommend you using arguments; identifying strengths and using them; identifying weak points and prioritizing their reframing; using language with great accuracy; creating positive associations to favor the position of the specialist; the determination to be the best you can be, for yourself.

The destructive use of critical thinking: just detecting the weak points of the competition and hitting them; reinterpreting and arranging the data to better suit you; proving that others are less intelligent; intentionally creating embarrassing situations for the competition; the attack on someone’s credibility.

Not using critical thinking: feeling attacked for someone else’s intelligence, failure in self-evaluation; trashing the competitors without any kind of strategy; stealing the position by cheating; criticizing or gossiping about others just to pass the time and/or to feel better about yourself; to want the neighbor’s goat to die because you don’t have one (envy); spite because the neighbor keeps maliciously reminding you of how beautiful his goat is and how non-existent his is; to hold a grudge against the neighbor and wish that he, the goat, and his whole family die.

Alternative use of critical thinking thought cooperatively: choosing family members and close acquaintances to count on for support; identifying the purposes for which it is worth trusting the collaborators.


3.  The rare experts. 

Constructive use of critical thinking: evaluating own sources and using them for reconfiguration (for example evaluating the in-house corporate resources and reconfiguring assignments within); modeling typologies or patterning  of system dynamics; the analysis of complexity through a strategic combination of seemingly contradictory perspectives; identifying an optimal functionality; the use of meta-analysis; offering persuasive demonstrations; identification of key actors who must be influenced; managing flexibility and open systems; creating frameworks for data interpretation; drawing warranted conclusions and generalizations; diagnosing the differences that make the difference and reconfiguring the system; self-improving by attacking self-diagnosed faults with practical counter-measures; self-efficacy; creating situations of independence; alignment of conflicting alternatives; structuring a creative method or designing creative methodology; supervision of mergers and acquisitions; writing projects; strengthening discipline; (sometimes) supervision/development of matrix organizations.

The destructive use of critical thinking: over-analysis; the use of limited frames of reference in system analysis, regarding, in particular, risks; delivering powerful systems for unethical purposes; creating addiction; overwhelming one’s own person/organization with the power of the role (position); overlooking through misprioritization a self-replicating problem in a system.

Failure to use critical thinking: Every expert must use critical thinking. At this level, critical thinking is inherent and must be directed predominantly toward wisdom.

Alternative use of critical thinking thought cooperatively: the design of a team of experts; the design of self-sustaining communities; creating win-win-win mechanisms (everyone wins, not just those who are directly involved); the design of new frames of reference; the development of new generations of technology; the design of some operating systems (and here I’m not just referring to Windows vs. Open Source); effective communication with others simultaneously with finding solutions to complex problems.



4. Transformational ideas _

Constructive use of critical thinking: lateral thinking; interdisciplinary expertise, restoring order at the market level; redesigning of general standards; inspiring the optimal use of natural resources; advocacy for purpose-driven mission of groups/teams/organizations; inspiring others to develop their own leadership potential; reflective thinking, inspiring others’ own efficiency; subtly influencing group decisions; the design of the project framework; inspiring experts, (sometimes) modal operators; inspiring the will (willingness) to serve the entire system;

The destructive use of critical thinking: negative influencing; supporting utopias; (sometimes) changing modal operators; attributing a spiritual meaning to economic activities; unethical conflict management; embracing or enhancing a non-epistemological philosophy; creating dependence on technology; re-shaping the comprehension of symbols; placing symbols as more important than the individual; using power against people.

Failure to use critical thinking: Every leader must use critical thinking. At this level, critical thinking is inherent and directed predominantly toward wisdom.

Alternative use of critical thinking in cooperative thinking: engineering relations between cultures; mediation and negotiation in international conflicts; using the power held together with the people.

I hope to convince you that the constructive or destructive use of critical thinking (and the lack thereof) is independent of competitive vs. cooperative thinking. I also hope that what you have read in this article will capture your attention when you use competitive thinking.


If you liked this material, then I also recommend:

25 ideas that can transform you from manager to leader for people to goals.

360° values: preferences in personality and society 

articles about vision.


Marcus Victor Grant

This article, The Difference Between Critical Thinking and Competitive Thinking was originally published in English on April 21, 2012, on Analytic Vision. Then, it got translated and adapted by AIM and Marcus Victor Grant from English to Romanian to get published in the magazine Economia Online (no. 50, 30/06/2016, in the categories Analysis, Economic thought ) here and here. Updated in 2021 in Romanian to get published in March 2023 here and here. The current English version got updated in March 2023. Text copyright, 2012-present © Marcus Victor Grant, all rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The Differences Between Critical Thinking and Competitive Thinking

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