It sounds paradoxical, but people we find threatening and who make us feel bad about ourselves can have a positive effect on our performance. The key factor is whether or not their strengths match the challenge before us.
Dozens of students performed a verbal ability test after reading one of four versions of a passage about a prize-winning student called Hans. Hans was portrayed as either younger or older than the participants – the younger version was intended to be more demoralising (and pilot work confirmed a younger Hans was indeed perceived as more threatening). Secondly, Hans was said to have been awarded his prestigious prize either for his astonishing verbal ability, or for his analytical skills.
Among the students who read about an older Hans, it didn’t matter whether Hans had won his prize for logic or verbal skills – all performed equally well at their own verbal task.
The crucial finding concerned the students who read about a younger, more threatening Hans. Among these students, those who read that Hans was an analytical wizard tended to outperform not just those who read about a young verbally-adept Hans, but the students who read about an older Hans too. So although he was threatening, reading about a young Hans whose strengths didn’t match the verbal task acted as a spur rather than a hindrance. The message is that superior others can inspire us to try harder at tasks outside of their strengths.
The researchers, Camille Johnson and Diederik Stapel, concluded: “This research suggests that those who make us feel best about ourselves…may not be the ones that lead us to perform our best. Ironically, it appears that those colleagues that most demoralise us, and are not in our specific field may provide the greatest long-term benefit”.
Johnson, C.S. & Stapel, D.A. (2007). When different is better: Performance following upward comparison. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 258-275.