Call It a Comeback: Why Performance Increases When We're Losing

Photo: slherbst01

If you were a New York Knicks fan in the mid 1990’s, you surely remember a certain 1995 playoff game in which Reggie Miller scored 8 points in under 9 seconds (two back-to-back three pointers, and two foul shots) to rally the Indiana Pacers to a last-second win over the stunned Knicks. It was a truly sad moment for New Yorkers, made all the worse when the Knicks lost the series in seven games. For whatever reason, some players seem to play better from behind. Reggie Miller certainly did.

A recent study by Jonah Berger of Wharton and Devin Pope of the University of Chicago highlights how being slightly behind is often an advantage. The authors devote a large part of their research to studying 18,000 NBA and 45,000 college basketball games. They also conducted an experiment in which people played competitive games and were given feedback halfway through. During a break in the experiment, someone would come in and tell the participants that they were either slightly behind, far behind, slightly ahead or tied.  The control group was told nothing either way. Berger and Pope found that participants who thought they were slightly behind significantly increased their effort. The authors write:

The results were clear. Effort increased dramatically only for people who believed they were slightly behind in the competition. What’s more, we found a similar effect when we analyzed real-world field data from 60,000 basketball games, including 18,000 NBA games. The relationship between the score and the likelihood of winning was fairly linear. For every two points a team was ahead, its chances of winning increased by about 7%—except for this major discontinuity right in the middle. Teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point at halftime. They won as much as 8% more often than they would have if the relationship had stayed linear.

The increase in effort was particularly prevalent for study participants who described themselves as having a “greater belief in their ability.” Being significantly behind doesn’t help performance much – it’s the hope that springs from a slight disadvantage that spurs people and teams to greatness. Feedback helps improvement, as does acknowledging the situation. Taking a break is usually when these two things are accomplished, and breaks are key to improving effort; basketball teams that are slightly behind often come back stronger after halftime.


D. Johnson

Yes, a sad moment for New Yorkers. For Pacers fans and people who don't love the world-revolves-around-NY-attitude of most New Yorkers, it was euphoria.


if this is true (and i doubt it), it's probably due to adjustments made at halftime- but overall, i fail to see how a one point advantage in a 2pt scoring system, where the overall scoring is @ 200 points is significant enough to mean anything at all- it's like moving the spread up or down a 1/2 point- yeah, it means something for 1 game but over an entire data set?

Juan Carlos

One point advantatge is not important for the game, but it seems that is important in the mind of the participants. In the halftime you have a lot of time to think about the game, and this point could change your point of view.

caleb b

I still blame Spike Lee.

Mike B

Reminds me of the news story where pro cyclists were timed on a simulated lab run then were made to race an avatar of their prior run on a projection screen. What they didn't know was that the avatar was sped up and in the second test the cyclists were able to increase their performance by %3.

Gary L.

There is data suggesting that a similar phenomenon occurs in the NHL. Teams that are losing tend to generate more shots than teams that are winning. Some of this is generally attributed to more conservative play by the leading team, and more aggressive play by the trailing team.


Not that these kinds of things shouldn't be studied, but it seems like this falls a lot closer to the "common sense" side of the "common sense-unexpected" spectrum than the usual Freakonomics fare.


I think it is as you say, common sense or intuitive for some people, but he is just trying to point out and restate possible reasoning behind what happens in the world. This is largely because sometimes we understand things better when they are restated in different ways than we would have thought about them originally.
This is personally why I like this blogs and radio posts, because it strays from the common things that are studied and published in Economics and show a wide audience how economics can be applied to any situation.

Thanks Mr. Gilman, good post!


1) At least part of the explanation could be that when you’re ahead, conserving your body becomes a consideration. If victory looks certain, why go all out and risk exhaustion or injury when you’ve got another game soon? You see this in Strongman competitions where you may have 5 events in one day, so if you perform too highly at one event, it can sap your strength for later events. But when you’re behind, you put energy conservation aside and just go all-out.

2) When you’re slightly behind, you probably play more aggressively to catch up, since you may reason that your previous efforts weren’t high enough, plus you have less to lose and therefore fear errors less. It could be that more aggressive play is rewarded. In other words, certain sports or sports teams may be chronically playing under-aggressively thinking that’s the best balance between scoring and errors, when that could just be wrong. Maybe they should be taking chances at more 3’s, or passing with quicker speed (risking errant passes)?



A subtopic of the whole "losing team comes from behind" discussion: I've wondered about a desperation tactic in pro soccer (also in hockey), when the losing team's goalie comes out of the box and plays up in the last 2 or 3 minutes of the game. I've wondered how often this actually works, and if it does, why don't they try it sooner? Alternatively, if it doesn't work, is it just a show of effort for the fans? Or worst case scenario - how often does it backfire and they end up with another point lost because they left their goal undefended?


Whether or not this strategy is a good idea hinges heavily on how goal differential is handled. In some soccer formats teams play home-and-homes, and in the first leg the slight increase in goal scoring is not worth the much higher cost of allowing a goal because there is still another game to be played.

However, in the second leg or a winner takes all situation, hockey teams frequently use this tactic and occasionally soccer teams do as well. You can look up clips on youtube and elsewhere of goalies going all the way across the field for last second corner kicks and the like.

Joe T

As for the Reggie Miller performance in 1995, not only can we credit Miller for being a tremendous competitor when his team is losing in the last few seconds of a big game, but we must also credit Spike Lee.
I have to agree with the idea that being down by a few points in a basketball game does help motivate players to play more aggressive and maybe even try different tactics or strategies to comeback and win the game. The theory that a "slight disadvantage that spurs people and teams to greatness" is on point, I have been in games where I have been on both sides of the score.
The greater the deficit in the game the less hope the then-losing team has to play great and spur a comeback, and the closer the game is in score the greater chance the losing team has at making a comeback and playing with more aggressiveness and fire in their bellys.
Everyone loves an underdog story and/or a come-from-behind win; that is what makes March so Mad.
Since Selection Sunday is soon approcahing and March Madness will soon be underway, I will not only be pulling out my hair in anger for penciling in the wrong team in my bracket, but I will also be looking for unlikely comebacks and wild finishes at the buzzer.



This is a good start to a very interesting outlook. I believe in almost everything this writer is speaking about, but you have to take it one step further. You have to be either consistently losing by a little to apply for a major comeback. There shouldn’t be a lot of ups and down, or I believe there is no advantage anywhere. I am currently reading the sports autobiography called “OPEN” by Andre Agassi, and it seems to be consistent with this theory. If Agassi is down, but not by a lot, his will to win and his aggressiveness skyrocket. He has better form, he plays riskier points, and he feels better and better about his game. If Agassi is way ahead in a match, the will to win and work hard with good form goes down a lot because he already assumes he won the match. Therefore, his chance of losing, or starting to play poorly, becomes much higher because the logistics and fundamentals of the game seem to become less important to Agassi and to the player.