top dog: the science of winning and losing
Before studying under Socrates, Plato was a champion wrestler. To the Greeks, competition, especially athletic competition epitomized humanistic virtue. They have a word for it, Arete. Arete means “demonstrated excellence” but the connotation is of a supreme moral virtue. The Olympic games evolved from a footrace that was used to decide who would light a holy torch, who was chosen or worth to do so in the sight of divinity. This subtext persevered to the point that some generations later the greeks and the persians would actually call a truce during the olympic games so that they could travel through each other’s lands to compete fairly. This sense of and respect for sport as an moral human activity persists through culture and is at least partially innate.
Psychological factors boost the “competitive drive” which is something like your immediate capacity to unconsciously tap into extra focus, energy and attention.
Generally speaking, competition teases out better results. Bicyclists racing each other out-perform cyclists racing against a clock by 5 seconds per mile.
Competition is almost as stressful as jumping out of a plane with no training. But unlike jumping out of a plane, it is not acclimated to. The chemical levels in new and veteran competitors are effectively the same. The difference is the behavioral response (either natural or trained) to that stress.
Individuals respond naturally to the stress of competition differently. Naturally, approximately 1/2 benefit greatly, 1/4 to some degree, and 1/4 actually reduce their effort.
Focusing on the rewards of competing/winning is a stimulant, focusing on the odds of winning is a deterrent. People respond to the promise of a reward even if the text
is flashed for less that 1/100th of a second and is not consciously
recognized. This implies that self-knowledge of motivation is very
In order for competition to be a stimulant, a victory MUST be perceived as possible.
The smaller the field of competitors, the more intense the competitive drive. Test scores are always higher with fewer students in the room.
In a boarding school setting, when paired with high achievers low achievers almost invariably shut themselves down while the high-achiever is unaffected. When paired against someone of similar skill, both students are likely to perform at a higher level.
When pitted against someone perceived as a rival drive increases dramatically, especially in practice.
When perceived as the underdog drive increases dramatically on the day of, provided that victory is still considered as possible.
(Yale vs Harvard football teams. When one team has an undefeated record, the other team wins in the head-to-head 70% of the time.)
Home-field advantage is very powerful and innate. This is a territorial behavior, an evolutionary advantage. Humans are more aggressive, competitive, confident, when engaging in a familiar environment even if this environment is only marginally more familiar. Conversely, we are naturally much less aggressive, competitive, and confident when entering into a space that we perceive as inhabited by someone else. Drivers are slower to leave a parking spot if they see someone waiting for it. Deals always go in the favor of whomever’s office the deal is held in (the exact reason that countries negotiate on neutral ground). We say "excuse me" and change our body language to be submissive as we walk past someone that is standing on the sidewalk. In a FPS, a person that arrives at an area 10 seconds before the other player is more likely to win an even engagement.
Other people watching your matches is a support and boosts success if you are comfortable performing/this situation isn’t unfamiliar. However it is a hindrance and inhibits success if you consider yourself to be learning.
For employers, intermittent/random checking in provides the best results. This preserves expectations without being a distraction (constant monitoring). More often for extroverts, less for introverts.
Comt gene: there are warriors that use up dopamine quickly vs worriers that use it up at a slower rate.
High dopamine levels correspond with stress and emotional/cognitive overload. Warriors are better suited for this but don’t perform at optimal levels without stress. Worriers are ill-suited for stressful environments but will outperform a warrior on the long-term after training to acclimate to the task and in peace-time.
Women largely refuse to compete until they have decent odds to win. They are not risk averse, they are simply better at recognizing when they are going to lose. For women to compete despite bad odds they must be in a social context that rewards competition for competition’s sake.
Men are not especially responsive to odds. Men can’t resist a chance to win and prioritize the best result over the probability of results.
That is, for men, competing for something is more important that the results of the competition. When the stakes are higher, men make riskier decisions and push for a higher level of play, women push for more consistent results resulting in a lower high-extreme (example: in a high stakes golf tournament the placing men score further below par than a different tournament on the same course while placing women are slightly closer to par than at another tournament). This is all of course typical, not a rule.
A feminine style is more successful in an infinite game where the object
is to get and stay ahead. Female wallstreet speculators outpredict men
by 7% accuracy.
A masculine style is more successful in a finite game with a defined finish line.
The social environment determines the form that competition takes.
When separated into groups and pitted against one another in a tournament, children develop real hatred for rival tribes and lash out in any possible way. But when given the opportunity to collaborate for the good of both groups (shared movie night etc), the divisive and violent behavior vanishes. This is almost certainly carry over from hunter-gatherer roles.
Men are predisposed to groups, women to pairs.
In a group, self-assertion socially or in terms of improving results is necessary for communication. This breeds localized competition. A group is a flexible and purpose-driven (groups almost always form around a common interest) model that allows for, encourages, but isn’t overtaken by individualism or individual conflict because there is always at least one mediator. In a pair, the purpose is rarely defined and emphasize commonality and suppress difference to avoid a conflict without the tools for resolution.
Pairs are fragile. This necessitates a keen perceptivity as well as a disinclination to compete needlessly and instead an emphasis on mutual reliability. Newcomers are not assets, they are threats to stability. Competition within a pair looks to achieve equality, not superiority.
When boys are paired, the lower achiever becomes embarrassed and frustrated. His ego is at risk.
When boys are put in groups, boys immediately assume roles and assist one another in order to achieve the best result for the group (implies competition with other groups).
When girls are paired, the lower achiever asks for and receives help.
When girls are put in groups, they are less engaged and work less efficiently because they feel a need to first establish good will within the group so as not to outpace the others.
Being a small fish in a big pond is amazing for girls, but absolutely terrible for boys.
achievers pull other girls up, they push other boys down. This is only
really meaningful though when the competition is pervasive and not localized
(example: a charter school, where you feel like you’re competing in life
all day with no release or recuperation. This effect is not present
when competing in a game that's only played for an hour at a time).
Successful teams are as small as possible to get the job done.
60% of a team’s success is predetermined by the members’ ability and the goal
30% is determined by the initial interactions that determine the roles/internal network
10% is what they do from middle to close.
red team members introduce themselves as a niche skill/subject expert and how it could benefit the group
blue team members introduced themselves as their job
red team is by a consequence outcome-focussed from the start, completely outperforming the blue team
each other about interests and expertise as an interview is a
consistence performance boon because individuals are much easier to use
Teams work best when participants know their roles when the pressure is on. Not every role needs to be equal, in fact focussing on equality in a group setting greatly reduces efficiency.
Team performance drives inter relationships, not the other way around.
best method for increasing team effectiveness is to identify and double
down on your individual function within the team, be that as an
instigator, a support, a leader, an aggressor, etc.
gain vs prevention orientation
playing to win vs playing not to lose, fight vs flight.
these are two distinct brain operations, one of which might overtake the other in the moment.
in competition, gain orientation has proven superior at a higher level of play.
it is easier to maintain a gain orientation with nothing to lose.
this seems irrational and it is but consider the reality of it. Would you rather take a penalty kick when the score is 2-3 and missing makes your team lose or a kick when the score is 2-2 and scoring makes your team win? You prefer the win. Everyone prefers the win even though the situation is mechanically identical. It’s just a penalty kick. Only the perception differs. The statistics for the win are much better than the not-lose, 92% to 62%. That’s the reality. The brain system used in gain orientation is better for performance.
Language wise, one is a challenge, the other is a threat. Sometimes changing the wording of directions is enough to change results on the test.
Prevention orientation makes heavy use of 4 discreet regions of the brain and is more conscious, both significantly slowing the brain down. It highlights risks over rewards.
In a challenge/gain state you are not expected to be perfect, you are more interested in rewards. It stimulates both the reward region and hormones that induce comfort and familiarity, allowing for a more automatic and faster response.
when your brain detects an unexpected mistake, it flashes an electrical pulse within about 70 milliseconds to identify that a mistake was made. First, there’s a drop in voltage corresponding in intensity with the shock, then a recovery period lasting maybe 500 milliseconds = .5 seconds during which the plasticity of the brain changes to allow for "correct" neural paths to generate. When experiencing high levels of negative stress/overload a shock is accompanied by a shorter recovery period. This obviously means less learning. Less efficient use of the system. This often triggers hard onset of prevention orientation and mistakes lead to more mistakes with minimal opportunity for learning from them. Downward spiral.
Interestingly, via empathy/displacement, this can even be triggered by perceiving mistakes made by other competitors! There was a figure skating competition where a star couple got injured and had to withdraw from their retirement routine, much to the dismay of everyone in the room. From that moment, every competitor’s routine was marked by more and more errors.
Prevention orientation is highly sensitive to details, ravenously consumes information, and works hard to resolve ambiguity before moving on, immediately losing sight of their goal. With time, this might be optimal. But in some contexts, the game is moving on without you. Gain orientation marches toward the goal. You learn the most from feedback on your mistakes.
Just as consistency by definition reproduces the same results, growth and creativity require disinhibition and mistakes to learn from.
YOU CAN’T CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONAL STATE, YOU CAN CONTROL YOUR REACTION AND YOUR INTERPRETATION
Any emotion is amazing IF it is used/channeled as a motivator.
competitive fire cannot exist when the goal is to make it through the day.
anxiety is chemically identical to excitement. Competitors that interpret the raised stress as excitement have a performance boon.
Individuals have different zones of anxiety levels that are for them optimal. Might be low might be high, might be in between.
The mental states needed to compete are NOT necessarily
related to well being
perfectionism and intolerance for mistakes is essential during practice
reassurance and positivity has a negative correlation with success
(consider, a lottt of people say that their best performances ever were marked by being angry)
angry is better than fear, it’s a mental stimulant on the fight path (provided a distinction between anger and indignation)
german children learning english
asked to visualize the best possible scenario having learning english (parents are proud, talking with english rock band etc). Then half of the kids are asked to write a list of possible obstacles that might come up, the other half is not. The kids with visualization alone have a C average 16 weeks later. The kids with visualization and problem anticipation have an A average. 10 minutes of critical thought influenced learning over an entire semester.
visualization as a method to prepare for a scenerio is amazing, visualization as daydreaming is harmful. Which one is the motivator/stimulant to make a real change? If success is taken for granted then effort is inhibited.
an additive reaction says if only I had done _ then _, learning
a subtractive reaction says if only I hasn’t done _ then _, regret
additive thinking prompts improvement, subtractive prompts worse performance
Creative fields are not immune to competition as a motivator
rennaisance artists’s contracts usually said “better than ___”, mattise vs picasso, picasso vs braque, van gogh and gaugine, etc
paragone assisted in the invention of “the artist”
improv contests have much better results than improv demonstrations
a general population, competition stifles or stimulates creativity and
quality based on the individual. Children with high agency perform well
in a competitive atmosphere, children with low agency suffer. This is
not to say that agency is a cause of creativity, but it is a
Testosterone is motivation.
The longer your ring finger vs your index finger, the
higher your sensitivity to testosterone, due to hormone levels in the
When present at higher levels in anticipation of a challenge, T crosses the blood brain barrier and stimulates the production of extra neurotransmitters.
It dampens fear response, makes brain more responsive to reward, risk reward calculation changes and becomes more accurate by removing the natural aversion to ambiguity.
In a test, T tablets boosted math scores by 9%.
This persists in both genders unless you bond with the competitor before or during competition (pairing response. Consider: Michael Jordan purposefully taunts the opposite team). This diffuses the testosterone response, as it reduces the desire to win.
It goes both ways. Heavy inertia. High motivation increases T production, high T count increases motivation.
Note: in a complex test where the goal wasn’t to win the game but something tertiary, testosterone tablets made people play /less/ aggressively. Aggression is not a symptom of high T unless it is appropriate. High T is high motivation.
Testosterone is derived from cholesterol using zinc (beans, whole grains) and fats.
Cortisol is necessary for metabolism and repair.
It is associated with a number of bad stuff like depression, high levels of anxiety and impaired learning. But it doesn’t cause stress, it is produced as a response to stress. Administered orally it explicitly calms you. Thus temporary spikes are good. Reduces fear and manages noradrenaline vs adrenaline ratio (flight vs fight).
Cortisol is the foil to T. It makes you care less about the outcome, able to forget about a mistake, and normalizes body chemistry.
Oxytocin, the love hormone
forges deep and enduring bonds, lasts a few minutes in the brain, found after childbirth/orgasm/a close hug.
It increases sensitivity to body language/expression/etc. It prompts a friend vs foe response, then the body follows suit. Love and aggression intertwined, fighting out of care.