Search the Site

When Losing Leads to Winning

Here’s my favorite new fact about N.C.A.A. basketball: teams that are behind by one point at halftime are actually more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead. This striking finding comes courtesy of a terrific new paper by my Wharton colleagues, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope. Their findings are summarized in this graph, which collects info from 6,572 N.C.A.A. basketball games since 2005:


The first dot (on the bottom left) shows that among those teams behind by 10 points at halftime, only 11.8 percent won; the next dot shows that those behind by 9 points won 13.9 percent, and so on. The line of best fit (the solid line) shows that raising your halftime lead by two points tends to be associated with about an 8 percentage-point increase in your chances of winning, and this is a pretty smooth relationship.
But notice what happens when we contrast teams that are one point behind at halftime with teams that are one point ahead: the chances of winning suddenly fall by 2.4 percentage points, instead of rising by 8 percentage points.
Berger and Pope are two of the brightest young behavioral economists around, and they posit a behavioral explanation. Losing can lead to winning because of the strong motivating effects of being close to your goal. You can link some of this to Prospect Theory — loss aversion suggests that you may be willing to work harder to avoid a negative outcome (a loss); the leading teams, by contrast, aren’t focused on the losing domain. And in fact, most of this “catch-up” occurs in the first 10 minutes after halftime.
But how can we tell whether this is the losing team working harder, or the halftime leader easing up?
Here, they move from field evidence to the Wharton behavioral lab, setting up a very simple experiment in which their subjects were challenged to a trivial task — how many times they could type “a” then “b” in half a minute. The subjects were told that if they beat their opponent, they would get a bigger payout. After the first round of competition, some were given feedback, and others weren’t. And here’s the key to the experiment: they randomly told some folks that they were a long way behind their opponent, others were told they were a little bit behind, or exactly tied, a little ahead, or even a long way ahead. Those who were randomly told they were a little bit behind improved their performance dramatically, while the other groups improved by about the same amount as the control condition (that is, the same improvement as those given no feedback at all).
It’s an intriguing finding: being behind by a little yields the greatest possible effort. And while these researchers measure these effects on the basketball court, or on pounding keyboards, their implications for the rest of our lives are even more intriguing. Want your workers to work harder? Tell them that they are running a close second in the race for promotion.
Intrigued? See their write-up in Sunday’s New York Times, or the academic version, here.