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Originally published March 24, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified March 24, 2013 at 8:36 PM

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Surviving, succeeding in a top-dog world

Understand competition to improve life chances.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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There is intense competition in just about every aspect of life, high-stakes testing in schools, competition to get into schools, a tight job market. It might pay to know more about how the phenomena operate, how we might harness the good and reduce the bad.

There’s not an app for that, yet, but there is a book: “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. You may know the authors for their most popular book, “NurtureShock,” and Bronson grew up in Seattle.

Competition can drive some people to bad behavior, but it can push most of us to do our best. Competition is stressful, which can be harmful or energizing. Stress is the star of “Top Dog.”

The books opens with a recounting of an experiment in which people who had never parachuted were recruited to make three leaps from a plane so that their stress levels could be measured at different points through saliva samples. As you might guess, stress levels soared during the first jump. But the level fell in each of the subsequent jumps.

No surprises there, but compare that to another experiment in which seasoned ballroom dancers were tested. They were all experts with years of experience, but during competitions their stress levels reached the same level as the jumpers on their second leap. Why? They were in a competition, and that meant two stressful things, being judged and being in a win or lose situation.

On the dance floor, or a stadium, stress can push people to excel. Most people improve their performance when they are competing against someone else, but some people are unaffected by competition, and some do worse in competitive environments.

Bronson and Merryman found in the research that biology has much to do with that, and so does the environment in which a person grows up. Children who roughhoused with a parent take on more risk as adults than children who didn’t have that relationship and didn’t learn you could go all out and still be OK.

And younger siblings usually are more competitive as adults than firstborns because they feel the need to step out of an older child’s shadow.

Stress isn’t an advantage if it is ongoing. A game ends after a set period, but some situations linger.

The Air Force Academy did an experiment it thought would improve the performance of cadets who were at risk of failing. Without telling the students, it created groups in which it mixed the highest- and lowest-performing cadets, hoping the stars would rub off on the others.

What happened was that the at-risk cadets, constantly being reminded of the gap between them and the others, fell further behind. Seeing no chance to win, they stopped competing, thus protecting themselves from the damage of constant stress.

Something else unexpected happened. The midrange cadets who were left over wound up competing against each other, seeing they each had a chance to be among the best in their group. Their performance surged.

These and other experiments showed that people will compete if they think they have a fair chance, but not if it seems there is no point.

The cadets were all male at that time. Women and girls usually react differently. Girls are less affected by competition because they compete differently. In a competitive school, girls at all levels just keep working and improving, not being stressed out by not being top dog.

But the research also found times when girls and women choose not to compete.

It seems women are much better judges of odds and of their own abilities than are men. Studies of political participation find that men think they have a shot no matter what the real odds against them, and so are more likely to run. Women assess the odds and run if there is a good chance they can win, and when they do run they win as often as men.

Sometimes almost everyone is affected in the same way by competition. Studies cited in the book have shown that students do better on SAT tests when there are fewer students in the room.

Too many students, and each is reminded how much competition there is to overcome, and their work suffers. When there are just a few students, each tries harder. It just feels like there is a better chance to win.

That’s useful information, and so is this: The home-team advantage is real, but experts say the explanation isn’t familiarity and fans (though there is that 12th Man noise to account for at Seahawks games).

The most plausible reason is an innate sense of territoriality, which in sports and every other aspect of life leads people to protect what feels like their turf.

Even when two people choose a neutral space for a negotiation, the one who arrives first has a statistical advantage.

So much behavior is in our heads, and the book is full of research examples. Give people a golf ball and tell them it’s lucky, and they’ll make more putts. Tell them everyone is doing really well at a task, and most will try harder and do better.

So many factors make a difference in competition, including whether we see something as a challenge or a threat, as a chance to win or a risk of losing. “Top Dog” is a good primer on the behaviors that can sink or lift us in a competitive world.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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