Being Behind by a Little Yields the Greatest Possible Effort

NCAA basketball teams that are behind by one point at halftime are more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead.

That's the fascinating finding of two professors who studied more than 6,000 games. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages and which team got the ball to start the second half.

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

Let your imagination run wild in terms of how this could be applied in the world of business and leadership.

As the authors of the study say, "Companies competing to win contracts or research prizes would be wise to focus employees on ways their competitors are a little ahead. Similarly, strategically taking breaks…when one is slightly behind should increase effort."

2 Responses to Being Behind by a Little Yields the Greatest Possible Effort

  1. Bill says:

    I wonder, though, about the degree knowledge of this phenomenon would affect motivation. Could you get a team with a false sense of confidence once they realize that being behind at the half should help them? I wonder about USC’s teams from 02-05. They thrived in the second half, perhaps due to this phenomenon. Knowing that this effect is statistically likely to take place seems like it would encourage players to continue to coast (as more recent USC teams seem to have done).

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Agreed. It’s like the placebo effect and medicine — if you “know” or focus on it too much you might diminish the effect altogether.

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