Penn Prof on March Madness: Can Losing Lead to Winning?

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820March 15, 2012

PHILADELPHIA -- Is your March Madness bracket filled out yet?  

Imagine you’re watching a close game.  As the teams head to the locker room at half time, only two points separate the two competitors.  Which team do you think is more likely to win?  The team down by one or the team up by one?

If you’re like most people, you said up by one.  But you’d actually be better off going with the team that is losing.  Teams down by one are more likely to win.  And the reason tells us a lot about the effects of competition on motivation.

Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School, has more than just March Madness.  He’s scored a three-pointer with his research studies surrounding motivation and performance in basketball.

Berger’s study “Can Losing Lead to Winning?” examines whether losing, by a little bit, might actually be a good thing.

Along with Devin Pope from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Berger analyzed more than 60,000 National Basketball Association and National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball games. 

The researchers were surprised by the results.  

Teams behind by one point at halftime actually win more often than the teams ahead by one point.  “This psychological effect is roughly half the size of the proverbial home-team advantage,” Berger says.  In this sense, losing can sometimes lead to winning, the researchers conclude.

After monitoring 18,000 NBA games and more than 45,000 NCAA basketball games, the researchers found the large and significant effects of being slightly behind an opponent on increased success.  For example, NBA teams that were down by a point at halftime actually go on to win 5.8 to 8.0 percentage points more often than expected.

The study illustrates how the losing team exerts additional effort directly following the halftime break.  This explains what drives the increased winning percentage.

Teams that were slightly behind at halftime scored more often in the second half, but did so most strongly right after the break, Berger says.

“The underlying driver is increased motivation,” Berger says.  “Being close to winning at half-time but not quite there, it can be really motivating.  Being behind just a little bit can actually encourage people to work harder.”

Just to take it one step further, the researchers conducted controlled experiments that supported their analyses, providing direct causal evidence that being slightly behind boosts effort among teams and individuals.

The study showcases the important role of self-efficacy in moderating these effects.  “People who believe they can achieve their goals –- even in the face of setbacks -- are more likely to increase effort after being slightly behind,” Berger says.

Berger studies social epidemics, or how products, ideas and behaviors catch on and become popular. He examines how individual decision-making and social influence between people generate collective outcomes, like trends.  More recently, he’s looked at why certain products get more word-of-mouth attention than others and why certain online content goes viral.

Videos of Jonah Berger:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqxRl3UgFsE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3uILrktBoc
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rcqC1zC8AQ&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL5B34C2AA307D2A54

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