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Winners and Losers

Science looks at the top dogs

Aug. 4, 2013
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The Olympics, one could argue, are the epitome of competition, where all the top dogs have their day. However, to be called competitive may indicate that you’re pushy, obsessed with winning and that nobody likes you.

In their second book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing (Twelve), bestselling authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman use scientific studies to investigate how people cope with the high-stress competitions—what makes some competitors excel and others fold under pressure.

Turning common sense on its head once again, they contend that competition isn’t only a matter of being negative or positive. More importantly, it is a necessary life skill. “We are all thrown into competitive situations, long before we’ve had enough practice,” say the authors. They add that whether we are prepared or not, we’re judged by how we “perform” in life. “To survive these trials, we need more than practice. We need competitive fire.”

In the book, Bronson and Merryman describe how competition is the secret ingredient to Fed Ex’s success, the tapestry of Wall Street and the biological effect of people with long ring fingers. (That’s right—long ring fingers.)

The authors dispel the positive-thinker myth, presenting information contrary to other positive thinking studies. Instead, they insist that positive thinking may help one’s psychological wellbeing, but it does nothing for one’s competitive edge.

The authors attempt to maintain a colloquial flow to the book. They use sports analogies and the like to keep the reading light as they explain scientific terms and theories that tend to bog down the book now and then. The analogies work, until you come across an unfamiliar sports reference. They introduce terms such as COMT, a gene that is a strong determinant in whether one performs well under pressure or not; and IZOF, an Individual’s Zone of Optimal Functioning, which denotes the anxiety level that is beneficial to performance.

Possibly, one of the most intriguing studies covered was whether men are better competitors than women and how their motivation differs. Introduced in the fourth chapter, “How the Worriers Can Beat the Warriors,” but discussed throughout the book, this inquiry is quickly denounced: “There’s scant evidence that women don’t compete as hard as men; however, there is sizable evidence that women, on average, don’t jump into competitions as quickly as men do…”

Competition is used as the proverbial thread weaving together subjects that seemingly have nothing in common—from skydiving and ballroom dancing to swimmers and entrepreneurs. “We like competition for…that thrill ride, beyond the limit of our fears,” the authors conclude.

Top Dog is an untangling of winners, losers, biology and psychology and how each plays its role in the rise and fall of competitors. It subtly beckons you to self reflect on your “tells” when under pressure—imploring you to turn up your competitive fire, and, quite possibly, become the next top dog.


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