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Why losing is the biggest motivator

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It seems like something mums would say – that being a loser actually makes you a winner – but new research indicates that when someone is losing (or has lost), they’ll be even more motivated to come out on top.

According to Jonah Berger and Devin Pope, authors of the study ‘Can losing lead to winning?’ published in Management Science, losing by a little can actually motivate an individual to win more than if they were already winning.

In their paper, Berger and Pope sought to investigate, “How do people respond when they are only slightly behind? Could losing by a little actually increase motivation and performance?”

First studying more than 18,000 US NBA basketball games, the pair found that half-time scores often predicated the final results. As expected, if a winning team was far ahead of their rival, they were more likely to win the overall game, and vice versa for losing teams lagging behind significantly.

Here’s the interesting thing though: for teams at half-time who were only behind by one point, they were more likely to win than those teams at half-time who were winning by one point. In fact, teams behind one point were approximately six per cent more likely to win than expected. 

Berger and Pope then headed into the lab to test their hypothesis. Test subjects were asked to play a keyboard tapping game, and then were given false feedback on their performance – either that they were losing significantly, only slightly, had tried, were just ahead, or given no feedback at all. Then, the game was repeated – overwhelmingly, those that were told they were losing slightly surpassed the other participants in the second half of the game.

So losing by a hair actually means you’re more likely to win – but how is this applicable to areas outside of sport and video game play?

“These findings have important implications for incentive design and motivating employees and others,” says Berger and Pope in their paper. “Rather than giving people the full distribution (i.e. how they did relative to everyone else), telling them about their performance relative to the person directly in front of them should encourage everyone to work harder.

“Encouraging people to see themselves as behind others, albeit slightly, should increase effort,” they conclude. “Managers trying to encourage employees to work harder, for example, might provide feedback about how a person is doing relative to a slightly better performer. Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is slightly behind should also help focus people on the deficit and subsequently increase effort.

“This should lead to stronger performance, and ultimately, success.”

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Published on: Saturday, May 21, 2011

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