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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Oct-14


Sunday 12-October-14

How Losing Can Help You Win

We all like to win. Or perhaps we just don't like to lose, which is why some people don't try. The problem is that, in many of the competitive situations we find ourselves in, there is only one winner and lots of losers. So why the tricky title above? How can losing help you win?

Researchers  Berger and Pope studied over 18,000 basketball games, comparing half-time scores with the final results. As you might expect from a good team, in those games where the half-time score showed one team ahead, the chances were that they would also win the whole game. In fact for every two points a team was ahead at half time, there was an additional six to eight percent chance they would win. A fascinating difference, however, appeared when the scores were close. In these cases, the team that was just behind had a much higher chance of winning. In fact a team that was one point behind at half time was significantly more likely to win in the end.

The just-behind motivation principle works in all kinds of other circumstances. In races, it is known that being out front is harder and that being tucked behind the leader is a great place to be so you can sprint past them just before the finishing line. Berger and Pope showed this in simple laboratory experiments, where people told to quickly press a button got faster when they thought they were just behind the leader (note that this did not work for a third-placed person). Further analysis of this effect showed a close relationship with self-belief. If we think 'I can do it', then we give ourselves the extra energy to work harder and put on that extra burst that gets us to the podium.

There are important lessons here for more mundane workplaces and life in general. If you tell people that they are just behind competitors, they will work harder than if you note that your competitors are way ahead.

Berger, J., and Pope, D. (2011). Can Losing Lead to Winning? Management Science,  57, 5, 817

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