I’ve started playing in a higher division in my local table-tennis league. I’m winning games less, but enjoying the experience more. I’m far from alone in preferring the danger of possible defeat to the comfort of easy wins. Psychologically this is curious because, at whatever level, virtually everyone who plays competitive games finds winning more pleasurable than losing, and most people like to feel good at what they do. In a new study, Sami Abuhamdeh and his colleagues have shone a light on this understudied paradox of motivational psychology.
The researchers invited 72 undergrads to play a sword-based video game on the Wii console (Speed Slice). The students thought they were playing against the console with the difficulty level occasionally changing in random fashion, but in fact one of the researchers, hidden nearby, was their real opponent. He had obviously spent many hours practising (what a great excuse to play video games at work) and was able to carefully control the closeness of the contests. Occasionally, the games were interrupted and the students answered questions about the experience.
The students enjoyed the game more when they felt they were playing well, but also when they felt a sense of suspense. These factors were relatively independent – students felt most competent when they were well ahead of their opponent, whereas they experienced the most suspense when scores were close. These influences obviously combine in some way, as the students reported the highest enjoyment levels when they were just slightly ahead of their opponent on points.
A second study with a different group of students was similar but this time there were two different games, Speed Slice and Duel, each played twice. The games were manipulated so that one ended in two easy wins, and the other in two close wins. At the end of the study, the students were told there was time for one more game – 69 per cent of them chose the game that they’d only managed to win by a narrow margin. The minority of other students who chose to play the game they’d previously won easily, had tended to say throughout the study that they had greater concerns about performing well. This makes intuitive sense – the thrill of possible defeat is bound to be less appealing when your need to excel is a priority.
On one level, the findings from this research seem very obvious – easy wins are boring whether you’re a spectator or a player. Yet the role of suspense in the pleasure of competition has been little studied, and it’s neglected by one of the most influential psychological theories that’s used to explain intrinsic motivation – “Cognitive Evaluation Theory” – which states that intrinsic motivation is fuelled by our need for competence and autonomy. In fact, as this research documents, “the motive for competence may be trumped by the enjoyment of suspense in some situations.”
Abuhamdeh and his colleagues think that the excitement of uncertainty is just as enthralling and important when we participate in competition, as it is when we watch a TV drama or read a thriller. It could also help explain why the psychological experience of “flow” (famously documented by study co-author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) – when we become fully and pleasurably immersed in an activity – is most often attained during tasks that are at the limits of our ability. As the researchers conclude, it will be interesting to explore these ideas with a wider range of activities and contexts.
Abuhamdeh, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Jalal, B. (2014). Enjoying the possibility of defeat: Outcome uncertainty, suspense, and intrinsic motivation Motivation and Emotion, 39 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9425-2