Human intuition suggests that being ahead in a competition increases the odds of winning. However, research from Jonah Berger and Devin Pope challenges that thinking by suggesting that being slightly behind can actually increase success because it increases motivation.
Berger analyzed more than 18,000 professional basketball games and found that being slightly behind at halftime led to a discontinuous increase in winning percentage.
So, what's happening here?
The authors contend that there are three aspects of behaviorial economics at play: reference points, loss aversion, and diminishing sensitivity.
Reference points allow us to categorize outcomes in terms of gains or losses (we win or lose). Loss aversion is a fancy way of saying that losses are more painful than gains are pleasurable. Diminishing sensitivity suggests that the further we are away from our goals the less we think they are possible to attain. Or, put another way, the closer we are to a reference point the greater our efforts will have on affecting outcome. This suggests that teams or individuals who find themselves behind by only a little should be more motivated to catch up. Basically, people slightly behind will outwork the leaders.
This makes intuitive sense. If you're down by 5 points at halftime you know the game isn't lost. A little extra effort and you might catch up. If, on the other hand, you're down by 25 at halftime, you know without a miracle the game is already over. Consequently, the effort your team exerts should be less than those who are close to their goal (diminishing sensitivity in action). Being behind, it seems, is only helpful when the deficit is not insurmountable.
I'm not sure I fully subscribe to the authors' explanation. Another potential theory is that the team slightly behind at halftime will take a few more risks (to catch up) while, at the same time, the team ahead will become slightly more risk averse. Naturally, the further a team is behind, the more risks they need to take to catch up. I think this might be an equally interesting explanation of the results.
The authors make an interesting point towards the end of the study.
Our findings suggest, however, that even experienced professionals (NBA basketball players) competing for large stakes are prone to exhibit nonstandard behavior. In fact, our results are even stronger in the NBA (where the players are more experienced) than in the NCAA. One potential explanation for this finding may be due to selection. NBA basketball players may be particularly susceptible to a psychological motivation driven by losing, given that these are individuals who selected into a job that rewards competitiveness
The authors conclude that encouraging people to see themselves as slightly behind others will increase effort.
Still curious? All of this seems to back up Carol Dweck's thinking that effort leads to success. If you believe that, you need to read: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (More on Dweck here).
Source: Can Losing Lead to Winning?