Harnessing the Winner Effect

The psychologist Professor Ian Robertson has recently published a book called The Winner Effect. Professor Robertson also blogs on this and other topics here. For those who have not come across this term here’s an explanation from the dust jacket of the book.

“‘The winner effect’ is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders. As Ian Robertson reveals, it applies to humans, too: achievement changes the chemistry of the brain making people more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive. The effect is as strong as a drug, and the more an individual wins, the more they will go on to win. In fact, winning can become physically addictive.”

The book is fairly topical and suggests the Winner Effect may have been at play in some of the high profile financial institution crashes we have seen during the last few years including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and JP Morgan Chase as well as Enron. The reason for the effect is that elevated testosterone levels in the bloodstream of the winner, which can last for months, help him (and it usually is a ‘him’) in his next bout. The increased testosterone raises the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and with each bout the process repeats itself. This results in a positive feedback loop where the winner’s testosterone keeps rising making him more confident, and raising his odds of winning, in his next round.

The ‘challenge’ of the Winner Effect is to not let this feedback loop get out of control and drive the person experiencing it to ever greater levels of risk and to him ultimately crashing and burning as he inevitably and eventually will. In the case of Fred Goodwin of RBS it was not just he that crashed but an entire corporation and pretty much an entire economy! So can the Winner Effect be harnessed, a bit like  nuclear fission reaction for good (a nuclear reactor) rather than bad (an atomic bomb)?

The clue to this seems to lie in setting yourself realistic goals which, when achieved, give you enough of a testosterone kick to spur you on to achieving the next goal without experiencing an overdose, such as might be achieved by setting and achieving a much bigger goal but which you are far more likely not to achieve in the first place.

There is a good deal of evidence that suggests setting unrealistic goals or having role models that are hard if not impossible to emulate lead to a fatalistic outlook which means you not only won’t achieve those goals but will end up not even trying because you believe you don’t have the ability, intelligence or self-control to achieve. Children of highly successful parents can often be like this. Professor Roberston cites the example of Picasso’s son who lived forever in the artistic geniuses shadow of his father and died a heavy drinker at the age of 54. What people often do not realise about Picasso was that he actually spent most of his early years doing little else but draw and paint, encouraged no doubt by his father who was an art teacher and professor at the School of Fine Arts in Corunna. It is likely therefore that Picasso’s fame and success was more a result of hard work and practice and an example of the 10,000 hour rule rather than an innate genius.

As we have pointed out before if there is a common path to mastery (of anything) it is that you are prepared to set challenging, but achievable goals, and practice, practice, practice on the way. Harnessing the Winner Effect and maintaining just the right levels of testosterone to help drive you forward may also help.

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