How Losing Can Help You Win
We all like to win. Or perhaps
we just don't like to lose, which is why some people don't try. The problem is
that, in many of the competitive situations we find ourselves in, there is only
one winner and lots of losers. So why the tricky title above? How can losing
help you win?
Researchers Berger and Pope studied over 18,000 basketball games,
comparing half-time scores with the final results. As you might expect from a
good team, in those games where the half-time score showed one team ahead, the
chances were that they would also win the whole game. In fact for every two
points a team was ahead at half time, there was an additional six to eight
percent chance they would win. A fascinating difference, however, appeared when
the scores were close. In these cases, the team that was just behind had a much
higher chance of winning. In fact a team that was one point behind at half time
was significantly more likely to win in the end.
The just-behind motivation principle works in all kinds of other
circumstances. In races, it is known that being out front is harder and that
being tucked behind the leader is a great place to be so you can sprint past
them just before the finishing line. Berger and Pope showed this in simple
laboratory experiments, where people told to quickly press a button got faster
when they thought they were just behind the leader (note that this did not work
for a third-placed person). Further analysis of this effect showed a close
relationship with self-belief. If we think 'I can do it', then we give ourselves
the extra energy to work harder and put on that extra burst that gets us to the
There are important lessons here for more mundane workplaces and life in
general. If you tell people that they are just behind competitors, they will
work harder than if you note that your competitors are way ahead.
Berger, J., and Pope, D. (2011). Can Losing Lead to Winning? Management Science,
57, 5, 817
Feng Shui, curves and good-enough explanations
Feng Shui is an interesting Chinese philosophy about arranging rooms,
buildings and even your life. It falls into what some call 'woo-woo',
non-scientific nonsense or just the realm of the mysterious. Science has little
time for such systems, although both assume invisible forces within the
universe. And what if there was something to it? It can be a trap to dismiss out
of hand things that have sustained attention and adherents for many years. The
question is 'what is really happening here?'. The system itself uses all kinds
of mysterious terminology and non-scientific ideas such as 'chi' or 'life
force'. Yet what if this was an ancient way of describing the experience of
something that exists. The principle of science is to make up explanations for
things that happen and then keep them for as long as the explanation works and
until a better explanation appears.
One of the ideas of Feng Shui is that curves are better than angles. And it
is generally true. If you walk into a house or room with plenty of curves, it
kind of feels nice. Researchers Dazkir and Read showed this when they asked over
a hundred subjects to rate computer-generated rooms in terms of how comfortable
the room made them feel (pleasure) and whether they would like to spend more
time there (approach). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they very largely preferred the
But why? Was it the mystery of Feng Shui as the curves facilitated the flow
of chi around the room? Or was it something more mundane.
Sadly, it seems that there is a simple explanation for this. When we look at
any object, we know it is a 'thing' because we trace the outline of it before
fitting the shape to an internal library of objects. In doing this, our eyes
detect lines through contrasted edges and then follow the lines to complete the
shape. Following lines is a bit like driving a car. The easiest drive is
straight lines. But when we come to corners, if the bend is sharp, then we have
to brake heavily, slow right down and ensure we keep on the road. But if the
bend is curved, the drive is much easier. Not only this, but curves also add
interest as they reveal new possibilities, breaking the boredom of a long
straight road. Overall, then, our eyes like curves.
There are many other phenomena like this, where the explanations that people
give help them make sense of their feelings, even though the explanations are
wrong. A wrong explanation is, after all, more comfortable than no explanation.
In this way, we rationalize much of what we experience, not because we are
correct but because we have a deep need to
Dazkir, S. and Read, M. (2012). Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our
Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior,
44, 5, 722-732
Intelligent Design, the Reversal Trap and
There is a dilemma that religious people may face, which is conflict between
faith and the evidence of
science. Religions are usually based on ancient writings, when science and
technology was nowhere near what it has become over the past century or so.
Today, science tells us that we evolved from apes and that the Earth is 4.5
billion years old. Religions that stray into such areas disagree, for
example the Bible says that the Earth is only 6000 years old.
One of the questions that is important is that of deity, of the
existence of an all-powerful God. When you have such a god, then everything can
be attributed to him (and it usually is a him). One of the 'proofs' of God's
existence is that of 'Intelligent Design', where it is concluded that the
universe would not be governed by such simple mathematical equations unless it
was created with purpose by a great intelligence.
Aside from the
fallacies in this argument, it falls into a deeper trap, of trying to
defeat the other side by using their own arguments against them. While this
reversal might seem a clever move,
its mistake is that
adopting the thinking of the other side accepts this approach this as valid, and
so weakens its own case. Religions are based on unquestioned
belief. Why do they need to use science to 'prove' a truth that cannot be
proven? Do the people who propose ID lack faith?
What is perhaps the problem is that many people, including scientists and
religious adherents, want there to be one true way. In fact there are many
systems of belief (and if you look closely enough, there is one per person).
Even science is based on belief.
Belief is assumed truth, and each group assume their canon is true and all
others are false. Yet like parallel universes, belief systems can exist
concurrently and only become problematic when they try to intersect.
There is yet a value for religion in the idea of Intelligent Design, not so
much as a solid argument that proves God's existence, but more that just
contemplating the idea of ID changes your thinking, even if you are not
religious. In research related to this principle, Tracy, Hart and Martens found
that if you reminded psychology students of their own mortality, they would be
find ID ideas more appealing. However, students of natural sciences went the
other way. Having studied evolutionary theory and science more closely, just the
mention of an opposing view seemed to make them become more entrenched. The
persuasive effect of ID on the psychology students, the researchers found, could
be neutralized by priming them with natural science thoughts.
A learning from this is that you may be able to get people to accept ideas
they know are not true by triggering a related need or fear (death, in this
study). You can also harden views that are already held with some conviction by
providing opposing views that are easily refuted.
Tracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential
Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution.
PLoS ONE, 6 (3)
How women choose a mate
How do women choose a mate? There are certainly plenty of men who would like
The evolutionary drivers would first point to seeking men who are able to
defend and feed the woman and their children, so power is classically
attractive, and may be indicated with such as strength, affluence, influence
over others and general cleverness. However, men tend to stray, so loyalty must
also be important. And of course the woman would not want the man's power turned
against her, so kindness is a valued attribute.
But what about beauty? Do women follow 'shallow' men who are so easily
seduced by physical features? Researchers Wilbur and Campbella offered female
subjects a choice of four mates with varying ambition and attractiveness and
found that indeed, women were attracted by good-looking men, though more so when
considering short-term sexual encounters, and particularly when the women were
open to such relationships. But this all changed when they were thinking about
longer-term romantic relationships, even for flighty women, when ambition (which
itself is longer-term) became more attractive.
This research underlines two opposing factors that drive much more than just
mate selection. The extent to which we think in the short term or the long term
has an enormous effect on both our decision and our lives. For those who can
think further out, a longer-term perspective will let them reap many future
rewards, yet many of us are so smitten with the short term and the present value
of things that we often choose a bit of jam today over more jam tomorrow. This
is also made worse where temptation is deliberately projected at us by
capitalist media throughout the day.
Back in the mating world, men are classically driven by the short term.
Nature has told them to spread their seed and so they easily head for quick
gratification. Yet when they take time to think, they can also take a
longer-term perspective and beyond those that seek the 'eye candy' of a
beautiful mate that makes other men envious, there is greater sense in seeking a
woman who will be a good companion into later life.
Christopher J. Wilbur and Lorne Campbella, (2010). What do women want? An
interactionist account of womens mate preferences, Personality and Individual
Differences, 49, 7,749-754
Sometimes you might be dozing, strolling, driving or otherwise not thinking
too much, when a thunderbolt strikes you as an idea just materializes from thin
air. Ideas can also appear when you are straining to find them, but often as not
they turn up in their own good time.
Ideas can be useful, they can be wacky and, sadly, they can turn out to be
impractical. And now and again they can be great. Big ideas are those things
that change lives. Often it is just your life that changes when a new
realization makes you see the world differently or you come up with a way of
making your life much easier. Sometimes, even more rarely, the idea can change
the world, such as when Einstein linked mass, energy and the speed of light, or
when Mark Zukerberg came up with Facebook.
Big ideas can arrive fully formed, though often they arrive in a jumbled mess
that needs a lot of work to untangle before the brilliance is revealed. There
are few rules about great ideas and many are stillborn when they are not
recognized, not developed or otherwise starved of the oxygen they need to become
the world-changing phenomena they could be.
When we have a big idea, sometimes we know it's a biggie, though often it
takes a while for another aha moment to come along as we realize we've got a
monster on our hands. You can have big ideas skulking at the back of the mental
cupboard for years before they declare their greatness. Maybe there's some in
there right now, just waiting for the right moment.
One of the big ideas I had was to write this website. It's been pretty
successful and kept me out of mischief for a dozen or so years now. It's pretty
much panned out as I planned. My goal was 'touch the world' and it seems I have
as I regularly sell books around the glob and I've received many nice letters
from many countries. Another is the CIA Needs model, about which I'm now writing
a complete book, though it took a few years to realize this model was worth the
effort to expand and detail it. Another realization was that a major skill I
have is insight, finding the core essence of whatever I am investigating. Only
looking back at years of work have I realized that this is why it all seemed to
work so well.
Just watch out then, for your ideas. Scrutinize then closely. You never know
it, you may have a big one on your hands!
The Father of the Bride
So yesterday, my daughter got married. It was an event writ large, planned
and prepared for years in advance, and yet there were last-minute panics right
up to the day. There was a theme of 1920s crossed with science fiction, with a
distinct tendency towards Doctor Who, Firefly and Star Trek. I was roped into
building light towers, a Tardis photo booth and providing everyone with a 100ml
bottle of spirits (which consumed most of my supply of home-make knockout
It a complicated affair and took multiple journeys to transport all the
effects to the venue, the redoubtable Caer Llan
in Monmouthshire. And then we were off. Heledd looked beautiful. She's inherited
her mother's timeless good looks and still get's ID'd when buying alcohol. In
her vintage wedding dress she was spectacular and as we walked down the aisle
there were many oohs and aahs. Being rather modern, she didn't want to just take
her husband's surname and so they decided to combine them, now being very
distinctly Heledd and James Winfield-Straker. The weather was warm, and rained
only once while we were inside for the ceremony, which is kind for September in
Wales. I did my speech talking about some of the fun of her growing years. There
was cheers, beers and champagne, games, conversation and dancing. Overall,
everyone agreed it was a very memorable and spectacular affair. Even a few
people who'd not been planning on coming but who had rocked up at the last
minute declared it was decidedly worthwhile. And indeed it was.
It seems so far from when Eleri and I got married. We just went to the local
chapel, had lunch with family and friends at the local bar and then borrowed a
tent to go camping. We had a wonderful time throughout and are still happily
married 38 years later. Nowadays weddings cost arms, legs and a few limbs
besides. But then this one was a real corker and will certainly be remembered by
Ground rush, buffers, exceptions and weddings
When you jump out of an aeroplane, hopefully wearing a parachute, the ground
seems far away. It continues to look this way for some time, which can lull you
into a false sense of security because when it starts to get bigger, it gets
bigger quickly and you need time to pull the ripcord, for the parachute to open,
and for you to decelerate from 100 miles per hour or so down to a gentle walking
The same is true for actions and events.
When Christmas or some other celebration is approaching, there seems plenty
of time to get things done, but as many last-minute shoppers know, that last
minute is characterized by panic and desperation. There may be several reasons
for this, a common one being that your plans do not turn out to be a predictable
march from A to B. Traffic is much worse than you expected. The things you were
going to buy are out of stock. Other urgent things crop up, demanding your time
Some people do this. They always leave things to the last minute. It's a
personality thing as each of us range across a scale of
Perceiving. Judgers plan well ahead. Perceivers leave things to the last
minute. Yet both may be affected by ground rush as the judger's plans go awry
and the perceiver's chaos gets in the way. A helpful method that many project
managers use to handle this is to include 'buffer time', or space and resource
that is not yet allocated, so if things go perfectly they finish on time and
under budget. But usually they do not, and spare time money can be very helpful.
Process designers and computer programmers cope by including 'exception
handling', where ways to cope with undesirable events are built into the system.
My daughter's experiencing ground rush at the moment as her wedding is just
over a month away. Being a smart business consultant, she's been planning and
preparing for this for ages (she's a strong Judger) and we were treated to a
PowerPoint presentation about it all over breakfast earlier in the year. It's
going to be a complicated affair with all kinds of decorations, games, music and
so on, with a science-fiction/1920s theme. Her exception handling includes a
dynamic couple of bridesmaids who would do pretty much anything to ensure she
enjoys her big day. If that doesn't work, it's Dad time.
I've already got my top hat and tails.
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