When is losing the route to winning? When you’re losing by just a little. That’s according to Jonah Berger and Devin Pope who think the paradoxical effect works because losing by a whisker is highly motivating.
Berger and Pope began by studying over 18,000 NBA basketball games. Specifically they compared half-time scores with final results. Much of the data was as you’d expect – the further in the lead a team was at half time, the more likely they were to win the game, and vice versa for teams losing at half time. In fact, there was a reliable pattern – for every two points a team was in the lead at half time, they were six to eight per cent more likely to win out at the end.
But there was also a clear blip in the data. Teams that were behind by one point at half time were actually more likely to end up winning than teams that were ahead by one point. Compared against the larger trend, teams behind by one point were approximately six per cent more likely to win than you’d expect – an effect about half the size of the benefit of playing at home. The researchers don’t think it has to do with coaches changing strategy or giving inspiring half-time talks: the ‘losing leading to winning’ effect was no greater among teams with more successful coaches. Rather, Berger and Pope think the effect is purely to do with the motivating influence of being just a bit behind.
The pair tested this idea with a simple lab task. Participants tapped two keyboard keys alternately as fast as they could for thirty seconds in a race against a partner. Then there was a pause in which they were given false performance feedback: told they were far behind their partner, just behind, tied, just ahead, or given no feedback. The 30-second key-tapping was then repeated. The result was striking. Those participants told they were just behind increased their effort in the second phase far more than all the other participants.
A final study was identical except that the researchers also measured the participants’ self-efficacy – that is, their belief in their ability to succeed. The just-behind benefit was replicated and for these participants only, self-efficacy made a big difference. That is, participants told they were just-behind at half-time and who had high self-efficacy were the ones who most increased their effort in the second phase. Losing by a whisker is highly motivating it seems, especially for those who believe they can do something about it.
Berger and Pope think their findings have real-life implications, in business as well as in sport. ‘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,’ they said. ‘Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is behind should also help focus people on the deficit and subsequently increase effort. This should lead to stronger performance and ultimately success.’