Harnessing the Winner Effect

The winner effect is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders.

The psychologist Professor Ian Robertson in his book The Winner Effect says that this phenomena applies to humans as well.

“Achievement changes the chemistry of the brain making people more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive. The effect is as strong as a drug, and the more an individual wins, the more they will go on to win. In fact, winning can become physically addictive.”

Professor Ian Robertson, The Winner Effect

Professor Robertson suggests that the Winner Effect may have been at play in some of the high profile institution crashes we saw during the 2008 financial crisis including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and JP Morgan Chase as well as Enron. The reason for the effect is that elevated testosterone levels in the bloodstream of the winner, which can last for months, help him (and it usually is a ‘him’) in his next bout. The increased testosterone raises the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and with each bout the process repeats itself. This results in a positive feedback loop where the winner’s testosterone keeps rising making them more confident, and raising their odds of winning, in the next round.

The ‘challenge’ of the Winner Effect is to not let this feedback loop get out of control and drive the person experiencing it to ever greater levels of risk and to them ultimately crashing and burning as they inevitably and eventually will. In the case of Fred Goodwin of RBS (and people like him) it was not just that they crashed entire corporations but pretty much an entire economy!

So can the Winner Effect be harnessed, a bit like a nuclear fission reaction, for good (i.e. a nuclear reactor) rather than bad (i.e. an atomic bomb)?

The clue to this seems to lie in setting yourself realistic goals which, when achieved, give you enough of a testosterone kick to spur you on to achieving the next goal without experiencing an overdose, such as might be achieved by setting and achieving a much bigger goal but which you are far more likely not to achieve in the first place.

There is a good deal of evidence that suggests setting unrealistic goals or having role models that are hard if not impossible to emulate lead to a fatalistic outlook which means you not only won’t achieve those goals but will end up not even trying because you believe you don’t have the ability, intelligence or self-control to achieve. Children of highly successful parents can often be like this. Professor Roberston cites the example of Picasso’s son who lived forever in the artistic genius shadow of his father and died a heavy drinker at the age of 54. What people often do not realise about Picasso was that he actually spent most of his early years doing little else but draw and paint, encouraged no doubt by his father who was an art teacher and professor at the School of Fine Arts in Corunna. It is likely therefore that Picasso’s fame and success was more a result of hard work and practice and an example of the 10,000 hour rule rather than an innate genius.

If there is a common path to mastery (of anything) it is that you are prepared to set challenging, but realistic and achievable goals, and practice, practice, practice on the way. Here are some tips on achieving mastery of something.

  • Have a ‘big’ goal (but not necessarily know how you’ll achieve it).
  • Break your big goal into small and achievable steps.
  • Practice.
  • Execute each step precisely – ensuring quality at each step.
  • Constantly adapt and ‘de-scope’ when necessary.
  • Practice.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Maintain motivation.
  • Love what you do (if you don’t, you’re probably doing the wrong thing).
  • Create new things by combining, or connecting, existing things in new and interesting ways.
  • Practice.
  • Finally define ‘mastery’ for yourself through the goals you want to achieve. Don’t necessarily take what other people define as being ‘masterful’ and think you have to achieve that.

By way of an example here’s a goal I have set myself this year. I want to improve my editing skills in Photoshop so that I can increase my worth as a photographer. For the purposes of this goal I’m going to define “increase my worth” to mean people actually hire me because of my skills in editing my photographs. That’s the big goal. Here’s how I might break it down.

  1. Decide what aspects of Photoshop I need to improve upon (e.g. understanding layers, learn how to creates masks, create great composite images etc).
  2. Find online courses (free and paid) that focus on these areas.
  3. Build a ‘curriculum’ and allocate 1-2 hours a day to follow those courses.
  4. Practice what I learn in each course, on my own images. Create at least one image for each learning session that uses the new skill I have learnt.
  5. Once I have mastered a technique write a blog post about it on my photography blog to consolidate my understanding.
  6. Go out and create some new images then practice on those using the techniques I have used.
  7. Aim to have learnt 10-15 new techniques that I am comfortable with and can repeat without having to refer back to the tuition material.

We’ll expand further on some of the above steps in future posts to help you set and achieve your goals, harness the Winner Effect and drive you forward to achieving mastery in your chosen field.

Published by Peter Cripps

Software architect, digital activist, blogger and photographer.

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