Being Behind, Effort, and Comparing Yourself

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 intruiging 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. The article says:

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.

In sports and politics, you have a clear competitor and where you stand relative to that competitor is transparently displayed on the scoreboard or in the polls. How about in business? 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.”

Perhaps. An underdiscussed dilemma for leaders in the world of business is the extent to which they should clearly define / highlight competitors to employees, and if so, how to frame the competitors’ progress vis-a-vis you — i.e., should a competitor be portrayed as slightly ahead of you (the equiavalent of one point ahead at halftime) so as to maintain the troops’ sense of urgency? Or is this letting you be defined by the enemy and motivated by extrinsic causes? And when does the “underdog hunger” of being just behind first place turn into demoralized hopelessness?

Finally, there’s a related question at the level of individual career. Should you think of the start-up of you as slightly trailing someone else’s career in terms of achievement to keep you maximimally motivated? There will always be someone who’s done more, and keeping your eye on that person — directly comparing yourself to that person — will keep you pushing. Then again, this approach can generate the kind of envy that consumes high achievers. An alternative to is create an entrepreneurial life so unique to you that it destroys reasonable comparisons. Unlike a lawyer who has a million direct peers with whom to compare himself, walk alone on your own path. If you do, envy goes down, genuine happiness for others’ achievements goes up, and success and progress becomes more about achieving individually defined and intrinsically motivated goals. But, realistically, you probably won’t exert your maximum effort, either. We’re social animals. Competition fuels us to be all we can be.

Bottom Line: In basketball, it seems that being behind by a little at half-time yields the greatest possible second-half effort. In business and life, the extent to which you compare yourself to the competition — and how such comparison drives underlying motivation and ultimate effort — is trickier.

(Photo: Flickr)

20 Responses to Being Behind, Effort, and Comparing Yourself

  1. Andy McKenzie says:

    I think one illuminating fact here is that the effect is stronger in the NBA than the NCAA: http://andrewgelman.com/2009/08/you_cant_win_fo/. Following the conventional stereotype that NCAA players try harder than NBA (perhaps because they are more intrinsically motivated), we should infer that it is especially useful to motivate others via this type of competitive comparison when they are lazier.

  2. Bill says:

    “Unlike a lawyer who has a million direct peers with whom to compare himself…”

    That cuts me deep, Ben…because it’s so true.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    I must have known this instinctively when I was still at Stanford. I was definitely the most successful Design Engineering/Creative Writing double major. I was also the only one!

  4. Yes, “trickier” as in “not applicable.” However, I admit I am guilty of using sports metaphors as well.

    We love to use sports metaphors for life lessons because life is so messy and unorganized. Sports have a clear winner, loser, score and time frame – life does not. I would be wary of literal translations as well.

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Indeed, sports are always zero sum games, whereas life we try to participate in or create non zero sum situations.

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  13. 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.

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  18. Dave Carlson says:

    Very relevant for medical school – getting a bunch of top performing students together makes everybody feel a bit behind and probably drives them to greater performance.

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