• Entrepreneur of the Month

Inside the Science of Winning and Losing

JULY 2013: THE COMPETITION ISSUE

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Founder and Publisher
Be Inkandescent

For a decade, it’s been a constant drumbeat, issued by leaders of our nation and corporations, to employees and even to our youngest students: we must all be more competitive. At last there is a primer on the science of winning and losing.

In Top Dog, authors Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson reveal the hidden factors behind every sort of win and loss—from bringing home an Olympic gold medal in swimming to bombing the SAT. The two award-winning science journalists also dive deep into the psychology of rankings, the neuroscience of mistakes, and the DNA of fearlessness.

Best of all, they unveil cutting-edge science through interesting stories ranging from pilot flight training, NASCAR brawls, political try-outs, ballroom dancing, CIA spies, and Wall Street.

Packed with fascinating insights, research, and “aha” moments, the book makes it tough to pick out just a few ideas to share. That said, here are our three favorite bits from “Top Dog.”

1. How Worriers beat Warriors—and when they don’t. Are you a worrywart? If so, research shows it’s how your brain is wired—in this case, with slow-acting dopamine clearers called COMT enzymes.

“This makes people capable of handling complex planning and thinking ahead about likelihoods and consequences,” the authors explain, adding that Worriers tend to be aggressive because they are pretty temperamental.

“Warriors,” on the other hand, have fast-acting dopamine clearers, the authors note, “making them ready to handle threatening environments where maximum performance is required despite threat and pain.”

Both approaches, and brains, are necessary for human tribes to survive, as they explain in Chapter 4. Pointing to research from a major national Taiwanese university that took samples from 800 junior high students in four regions of the country, Bronson and Merryman report that in a regular classroom, on a daily basis, the Worriers have the advantage.

“Thanks to high dopamine levels, they have better memories and attention and a higher verbal IQ. They’re superior planners and can better orchestrate complex thought.”

But, they explain, as the pressure intensifies, Worriers become distressed and frustrated; in the Taiwanese study they scored 8 percent lower than the Warriors. The good news, the authors share, is that those with the Worrier gene aren’t doomed when thrown into a stressful situation.

“The Worriers can handle stress, and even outperform the Warriors, if they train themselves to handle the specific stress of certain recurring situations. By acclimating to their stressful environment over a long period of time, they learn to perform.”

2. Why Michelangelo needed an agent. “Society accepts that market competition and product innovation go hand in hand,” the authors explain. “But for some reason, it’s often assumed this same dynamic doesn’t drive creativity in the fine arts.”

But it does, they insist in Chapter 11, pointing to historian Rona Goffen’s book, Renaissance Rivals, in which she explains the concept of paragone, a debate from the Italian Renaissance in which one form of art—architecture, sculpture, or painting—is championed as superior to others.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, touting the difficulty of painting and supremacy of sight, is a noted example. Michelangelo’s treatise on the superiority of sculpture is a famous response to da Vinci’s treatise. Bronson and Merryman explain that da Vinci believed artists thrived under the pressure of a highly competitive environment. He regularly invited artists to visit his studio to see his works-in-progress.

Michelangelo, on the other hand, was said to have been miserable working alongside other artists, especially da Vinci. In fact, when he was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, he turned down the offer. But his finances eventually forced him to make a different choice.

So what is the impact of competition on creativity? The “Top Dog” authors showcase research by Regina Conti at Colgate University, who hosted a series of “art parties” for kids ages 6 to 11 at a Boston day camp, and at a local Catholic school.

“At half the parties, the kids were told it was a contest, that their collages would be judged by adults and that the three best would win nifty prizes,” they explain. “The rest of the kids were given no such competitive framing, and no rewards were promised. Those kids were, in theory, just doing the collages for the fun of it.”

Did the contest made the kids more creative? Yes, Conti’s study found, for there are actually two kinds of kids: those who seemed to become more creative in going for the prize, and those who became less creative and didn’t like having their work judged.

Sounds just like da Vinci and Michelangelo, right? So what causes the difference in motivation? Agency. “The kids high in agency loved the collage competition and were more creative,” write Bronson and Merryman. “The kids low in agency didn’t like being judged or compared, and they became less creative.”

The bottom line? “Paragone—the Italian word for competitive debate—has come down to modern English and understanding as ‘paragon,’ often to describe something without peer, and in particular, diamonds. We can’t forget that diamonds become peerless because they’ve withstood centuries of heat and pressure. That’s what kids need to have: clarity and strength of vision built up over time—a brilliance that can withstand enormous pressure.”

3. Last but not least, consider the power of the home-field advantage. Did you know that those who negotiate on their home turf can take away up to 160 percent more than the away-team opponents? That’s according to research by University of British Columbia professor Graham Brown.

It’s true for high-level diplomats, as well as companies and individuals. In fact, Bronson and Merryman write in Chapter 2: “Someone asking his boss for a raise is more than likely to be successful if he’s in his own office than in his boss’. When two teams at a firm work together on a project, the team hosting the coffee and bagels in their conference room is likely to take charge of the entire endeavor.”

Why? Because being at home changes the style of play, the authors say. “The home advantage is also stronger when the result seems uncertain—such as the beginning of the season, the start of the game, or if the home team’s behind at the halfway mark.”

While the Inkandescent Group is as consciously competitive as the next company, it was our pleasure to fly to California to interview the authors on their own turf.

Click here for our interview with Bronson in San Francisco.

Click here to listen to our Q&A with Merryman in Los Angeles.

• Don’t miss Bronson and Merryman’s Tips for Entrepreneurs on the 7 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Do to Gain a Winning Edge.

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