Rod Dreher

Jonah Lehrer reports on research showing that competing against people who are far and away better does not make you better, but causes you instead to shut down. Excerpt:

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be “de-motivating” in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. “Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better,” Ms. Brown says. “But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn’t matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we’re probably going to lose?”

Tell me about it. I was always at or near the top of my class in math. Then I went to an advanced school, and was placed in a class with mathematical whizzes. I could easily handle the accelerated humanities classes, but I was completely outclassed in math. For the first time in my life, I was left badly behind. I shut down, and failed the class. It was humiliating, and I, who hadn’t entered that school as an A math student, never went near math again.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus