People Love Winning Streaks By Individuals More Than Those By Teams

By Emily Reynolds

When Usain Bolt or Serena Williams step out for their latest race or match, the world waits with bated breath. As some of the best athletes in the world, their unbelievable winning streaks have been met by almost universal acclaim — and plenty of people hoping that streak isn’t broken.

But according to Jesse Walker from Ohio State University and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University, that investment and goodwill just isn’t the same when it comes to teams: we’re far less impressed by consecutive wins by groups of people than those by individuals. They call this phenomenon the “Streaking Star Effect” in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  

In the first study, 207 participants read about the history and rules of Calcio Fiorentino, an obscure amateur Italian sport combining aspects of football, rugby and martial arts. Participants in the “team” condition were told the Milan team were the best in the world, winning six championships in a row; those in the “individual” condition read about Robert Moretti, the best player in the world, on the same streak. They then rated how much they would be rooting for either Milan or Moretti to win the championship and how much they would want the streak to come to an end.

Participants wanted to see Roberto Moretti continue his winning streak significantly more than they wanted the Milan team to do the same. Given that participants were American, they likely were not familiar with either the game or Moretti, suggesting that the results couldn’t be explained by a desire to see a beloved figure succeed.

The same results held in a second study using the similarly obscure example of a British quizzing competition. A third, in which the pool of competitors was exactly the same size for individuals and teams, showed that the Streaking Star Effect couldn’t be explained by the fact individual participants were likely to have beaten more competitors than teams would have.

The fourth study looked more closely at the underlying causes of the Streaking Star Effect. A total of 205 participants read about the National Association of Police Organizations, which gives awards each year to both individual police officers and departments. In the individual condition, participants read about an award given to the best homicide detective in the USA, and were told that Edwin Sorenson had won the award four years in a row. Participants in the group condition read about an award for the best homicide department in the country, learning that either the Kansas City or Los Angeles Police Department had, again, won four years in a row.

As well as answering the questions from the first three studies, participants also indicated how much they would feel awe, amazement and wonder if either Sorenson’s or the police department’s streak were to continue. To distinguish awe from other positive emotions, participants also stated how happy, amused and compassionate they would feel.

Again, participants were significantly more keen to see the individual (Detective Sorenson) extend his winning streak than the team (the police department). Furthermore, participants felt more wonder at the prospect of Detective Sorenson’s continued success and more positive emotion overall, suggesting that feelings of awe can lead to a greater desire to see an individual winning streak continue.

In a later study, participants were asked to explain why they felt either an individual or a team was on a winning streak. Success was more often chalked up to disposition or personal characteristics (rather than circumstances) for individuals than it was for teams. Greater dispositional attributions were also linked to increased feelings of awe. In other words, credit was given to an individual and their talents more than their situation, creating far more emotional attachment and investment than for team achievements, which tended to be attributed to circumstances.

A final study confirmed that the Streaking Star Effect holds even outside of sports: when a company’s success was attributed to an individual CEO, participants felt that the company deserved a greater market share than when it had been guided by a group of executives. This makes sense: companies like Microsoft and Apple have famously benefited from charismatic founders and CEOs, while those without a focus on an individual leader often hold less emotional resonance for the general public.

This final study hints at wider repercussions too, and in a follow-up survey the team found participants far less tolerant of wealth inequality when those at the top were described in group rather than individual terms: when individuals were perceived to be at the top, participants were more likely to believe they deserved it. Stretching beyond sport, the Streaking Star Effect may even, as Walker and Gilovich put it, change the way we think about “the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless”.

The streaking star effect: Why people want superior performance by individuals to continue more than identical performance by groups.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest