Find Your Competitive Style and Beat the Odds
Look at your hands. How much longer is your ring finger than your index finger? If it’s significantly longer, you thrive on competition. If it’s only fractionally longer, you underperform in competitive situations, according to research cited in Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, a new book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Those who believe that linking finger sizes to competitive spirit is as scientifically legitimate as reading palms will be surprised. As Bronson and Merryman explain, it’s all about the neuroscience — and as it turns out, comparative finger sizes and competitive spirit and skill have the same neuroscience roots, which is why the former is an indicator of the latter.
What’s So Bad about Competing?
Subtitled "The Science of Winning and Losing," Top Dog goes much deeper than simply revealing interesting facts. Building on a wide range of academic and scientific research, the authors present a fascinating exploration of competition that argues why, in general, competition is beneficial. In Top Dog, readers will learn the psychological and neurological reasons why some people thrive under competition and others wilt, why there are differences between men and women and why competition can be harnessed and encouraged to increase performance and success.
They show, for example, how fathers roughhousing with their sons can make a difference in why boys might be more competitive. They also explain how men are more willing to enter competitions where they have no realistic chance of victory. By contrast, women can be as competitive as men, but women restrict their playing field to situations where they believe they have at least a chance of winning. This explains, according to the authors, why women appear to face challenges making inroads into elected positions.
The authors also explain the importance of framing competition as a positive test and not a negative threat. The University of North Carolina women’s soccer program was so dominant that its players felt the pressure of being expected to win. Coach Anson Dorrance relieved the pressure by rearranging the schedule. "The team would go on long road trips," the authors write, "playing back-to-back games, in different cities, on consecutive nights — all against nationally ranked teams. Because no one could expect a team to win every game under such demanding conditions, the threat was transformed into a challenge, and the team relaxed. They won every time."
The Genetics of Competition
As most people know, a competitive situation may help some perform better, but much depends on the individual, and neuroscience has been able to identify the genetic differences that account for different responses to stress. Bronson and Merryman eloquently explain how stress floods the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that we use to make decisions, anticipate consequences and resolve conflicts — with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The right amount of dopamine helps us think more clearly and effectively, but too much dopamine overloads the brain, leading to a meltdown under pressure. There are two types of genes that carry an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) that removes excess dopamine from the prefrontal cortex: the lazy ones and the hard-working ones. It’s the hard-working ones that keep the level of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex just right. Genes thus play a significant role in our competitive styles.
Competition in one form or another is an unavoidable facet of our personal and work lives. This insightful book will help readers understand and manage the advantages and disadvantages of competitive stress.
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