The science of why winners keep winning
Winning teams like the New England Patriots obviously have a lot of things going for them. The ability to attract top talent, for example, makes a huge difference.
But is there anything about winning itself that makes people more likely to win again in the future?
The answer seems to be yes, according to a recent segment from the new NPR podcast "Hidden Brain" - and there's science to back it up.
As science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains to host Steve Inskeep on the podcast, "there's an old saying that 'nothing succeeds like success.'" When researchers actually tried to test that proposition, they found that in fact, there was some truth to it.
Competitors who experience success are more likely to continue winning - even when compared to people of basically equal talent who didn't experience an initial success. In other words, there's something about winning that makes people more likely to keep succeeding.
The hard part for researchers is differentiating between the effect of talent and the effect of winning by itself.
So as Vedantam explains, Swedish researchers Olof Rosenqvist and Oskar Nordstrom Skans analyzed the performance of players in the first phase of a professional golf tournament - where about 140 golfers would compete to make the cut. About 65 would proceed to the next round.
They compared the players who barely made the cut to the ones who just missed it - the people who would be ranked 65th and 66th overall, for example, whose skills should be fairly equivalent.
A statistical analysis found that the players who made the cut were about three percentage points more likely to succeed again in future events - especially if those future events involved more prize money, theoretically with higher stakes and more pressure. They write in the study that they consider this a "fairly substantial effect."
Rosenqvist and Skans speculate that the confidence that comes from winning makes it easier to succeed again.
Of course, factors like confidence vary from person to person, and it's possible that these effects could be less strong or even stronger in other other sports, especially when team dynamics are taken into account. More research on a wider variety of sports and players is needed to see if this effect holds up.
But as this study suggests, competition isn't just about raw talent. Psychology, confidence, and perhaps some other effect of having won in the past seem to make a difference too.
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