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Do Underdogs Have More Motivation?

Not so, at least on simple tasks, says a recent study.

Members of a group or team will work harder when they’re competing against a group with lower status than when pitted against a more highly ranked group, according to a new study.

The results run contrary to the common belief that underdogs have more motivation because they have the chance to “knock the higher-status group down a peg,” said Robert Lount, co-author of the study and assistant professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
“We found over and over again across multiple studies that people worked about 30 percent harder when their group was competing against a lower-status group,” Lount said.

“It seems surprising to many people that the high-status team has more motivation, but it really makes sense. The higher-ranked group has more to lose if they don’t compare well against a lower-status group. But if you’re the lower-status group and lose to your superior rival, nothing has changed – it just reaffirms the way things are.”

Lount conducted the study with Nathan Pettit of Cornell University. Their results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

He noted that students didn’t perform worse when they were pitted against higher-ranked teams than they did against similarly ranked teams. But it was only when students competed against lower-ranked teams that they actually were motivated to work harder.

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