Why do some individuals get fired up during competition, while others choke?
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the best-selling authors of 2009’s NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, have pored over decades of research into the psychology, neuroscience and genetics involved in determining how we respond under pressure.
In their new book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, they argue that regardless of how well we perform, competition is crucial. And to become fair opponents and boost co-operation, we need to engage in more competition, not less. Savvy competitors, they say, know there is more to a match than winning; competition challenges people to strive to be better.
Reached by phone in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Bronson and Merryman explain to The Globe how even those who are prone to performance anxiety can thrive in the heat of competition:
If competition brings out the best in people, why do so many of us loathe being called “competitive”?
Bronson: To be competitive, to give 100 per cent, we fear, is to cross the line between what we call adaptive competitiveness into maladaptive competitiveness. If you compete really hard, you’re somehow thought to be breaking the rules.
Merryman: Whether we consider competitiveness as all right is also very context-specific. So Michael Phelps can be competitive at the Olympics and we’ll cheer him on. But during a board game at home, to say, “Whoa, he was just really competitive” – that’s not supposed to be a compliment. As a woman, being told you’re competitive is even often more pejorative because it’s meant that, “Oh, she’s kind of bossy.”
You say we are either genetically hardwired to be “warriors,” who thrive under the stress of competition, or “worriers,” who buckle. Can worriers train to become warriors?
Bronson: You can’t change who you are. You can’t change your genes. The important thing about being a worrier is when you’re not stressed, you’re going to perform your best. Most of the time, the warrior has the advantage. It’s important not to feel like the worrier is a second-rate genotype. But with experience, you can train to manage specific stresses.
How can individuals recognize whether they’re warriors or worriers?
Bronson: In what situations do you get scatter-brained? In what situations do you find yourself short of breath, or your mind can’t come up with the answer? This happens in one form or another to all of us.
Merryman: We don’t want people saying, “Oh well, I’m a worrier, so you couldn’t have possibly have expected me to have done well in that sales meeting.” The idea is, “Hm, I get really stressed before meetings. What can I do beforehand when I anticipate my heart will race?”
You found that the more people we compete against, the less motivated we are to win. So how can we increase our drive if we work in a large company or are staring at a wide pool of competitors?
Merryman: This is the “N-Effect” – the more people who are competing at something, the less hard everybody works. The science of competition consistently shows that close races matter. Because when there are just too many people, you feel you can’t win the fight. You don’t even know who you’re competing against. The best answer may be to find a friendly rival – maybe not the president of the company, but someone you feel you need to be on top of. You use them as a reference point for improvement.
Should we surround ourselves with peers who perform slightly better or far better?
Merryman: Far better is demoralizing because you can’t catch up. For example, I have a tiny vocabulary of physics. But in a room full of physics geniuses, I’m going to start daydreaming. You want a group that inspires you, that doesn’t make you feel so outclassed that you wonder, why even bother?
Why is it better for a team not to be entirely composed of team players?
Bronson: There’s inherently a need for some sort of discord so there’s not this sense that everyone has to toe the party line.
People on teams mirror each other’s motivations. When things aren’t going well, this can drag everyone down and cues of indifference begin to infect a team. You need individuals who are going to react against that indifference. They will rebel and respond with extra motivation by fighting back and reinfecting their team with motivational cues of goal activation that will turn the tide around.
Merryman: The other thing is the phrase “teamwork” turns off some of the most talented people. The most talented people don’t want to be team players. They want to be recognized for their achievements. They’re worried that being on a team is going to drag them down.
You have a chapter titled The Utter Importance of Pillow Fights. How does roughhousing with your children make them better competitors?
Bronson: Competing stirs all these emotions – feelings of comparison, something that feels like aggression, but is not quite aggression, a sense of rivalry. All these things are actually kind of confusing for people.
To be a good competitor, you need to know how to go hard without crossing any lines. This is what we get through rough-housing. You learn that these aroused emotions don’t have to lead up to fighting or walking away with your soul wounded. Roughhousing is not competition itself, but emotionally, it’s sort of a precursor to what you’ll experience when you compete.
Why does being the youngest in a family give you a competitive advantage?
Bronson: Younger siblings get used to standing up to someone who is bigger than them and can take what they want at will, and they bring that outside the home.
Merryman: They also tend to be bigger risk-takers because they understand that if their older sibling is bigger, they have to come up with a more creative strategy to defeat them. One of the common reasons younger siblings start fights is because they anticipate their older siblings would start one anyway. They’re already anticipating ways to work around their stronger competitor.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tips for top dogs
Take advantage of playing on home turf. Whether it’s a sports match or a political negotiation, people are consistently more successful when they have home-field advantage.
Play to win rather than to avoid losing. You’re more likely to make mistakes when you’re trying not to make mistakes.
Narrow down your competition. Individuals lose their drive when they’re faced with too many opponents. You’re better off focusing on one or two close rivals.
Visualize your past performances, rather than your goals. Fantasizing about winning may actually make you less motivated because you can be lulled into taking success for granted. Reliving what actually happened, on the other hand, can help revive motivation.