by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman
The authors study the brain science behind competition – why some people thrive under stress and some don’t, the role of gender and hormone levels, the role of reward vs. risk, and so on – to uncover some findings that run counter to common belief. One of these is that stress can be a positive factor in some types of personalities, called “warriors” here and distinguished from “worriers”; the latter thrive better in situations that call for planning, memory, and organization. Another finding is that teams do not have to get along or be friends to succeed, rather dominating when players’ roles are known and unequal (think of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” or the NBA, where rivalries run high but skill and pay levels are generally conceded as commensurate). Recalling studies I have read elsewhere about the science of top athletes “choking,” the book also explores how expectations and the presence of spectators can affect performance, and how the idea of “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose” is much more appealing to us, and thus by its framing determines how the same physical action might succeed or fail. I found the information on the role hormones play to be fascinating: for example, testosterone does not increase aggression in competitors but rather increases determination, teamwork, fearlessness, tactical decision-making… indeed, any trait that will increase a player’s esteem in the eyes of others and determine a win. In the same vein, the authors show that oxytocin, widely known as the “love hormone,” does not merely increase a nurturing instinct but also sharpens the ability to determine threats vs. friends, and increases wariness and the protective urge, both of which help competitors win. In regards to gender roles, in what is probably one of the more controversial section of the book, the authors assert that men, blind to their shortcomings, are more likely to take on competition with very little chance of success, whereas women, “better judges of their own ability,” tend to compete only when there is a realistic chance for success, which helps in part explain why there are far fewer women than men candidates for public office at the high levels, and why women make much more accurate stock analysts. Finally, in one of the more counterintuitive findings, the book shows that positive thinking can actually hurt competitors: not taking the competition seriously, or assuming everything will go smoothly, does nothing to help one prepare. Instead, top competitors review their failures rationally and indulge in “subtractive counterfactuals” – that is, identifying what one should not have done, identifying obstacles to success and removing them, rather than saying “if only I had…”
This is not a self-help book, but the science can, of course, be used to help improve competitors’ performance. For example, knowing that each person has an optimal level of stress, that controlled focused anger can boost performance, or that reviewing failures is more productive than fantasizing about victory, can help competitors adapt a winning mindset. The information is sometimes presented in a rather scattershot way within chapters, and there is almost no discussion of how environmental factors may influence competitions, but it is on the whole a lucid, thorough, illuminating, and useful work on one of humanity’s most basic urges – the impulse to win.