Leading Late in the Game Can Be Dangerous

Professor Jordan Etkin on the danger of underestimating the effort needed to win

May 5, 2017
Behavioral Science, Marketing

To avoid fading when ahead with the finish line in sight, focus on a higher goal than winning, says new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Professor Jordan Etkin found we don't try as hard when leading late in a competition because we underestimate the amount of effort needed to secure victory.

"As you get closer to the end, you mistake your lead for a win," Etkin said. "You feel you don't have to work that hard and we see that relaxation of effort."

To maintain motivation, focus on a higher standard, such as improving a personal best, she said. The findings show how organizations can help their employees maintain late-stage motivation in competitive situations.

The research, "How Winning Changes Motivation in Multiphase Competitions," is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Etkin worked with Szu-Chi Huang of Stanford University and Liyin Jin of Fudan University.

In one of several studies, the researchers had 212 participants compete in a geography bee against a fictitious opponent controlled by the researchers. They created situations where the distance between a competitor and an opponent was not so large that a lead couldn't be lost, where stepping off the gas would clearly be a mistake.

Participants got feedback about their performance -- either that they were ahead or behind -- early or late in the game. The researchers measured how well they did and how hard they worked after the feedback.

"We found that learning you're in the lead early on in a competition was motivating, compared to learning that you're losing or getting no feedback," Etkin said. "It made people feel they could win and increased their motivation."

"Rather than focus on the fact they hadn't won yet, they focused on the fact that they had almost won."

But the studies also revealed that being in the lead had a demotivating effect later on.

"In a later phase of the competition, when we asked people to estimate how many more points they needed to win, they estimated fewer when they were ahead," Etkin said. "Rather than focus on the fact they hadn't won yet, they focused on the fact that they had almost won," Etkin said. "That's maladaptive, because you can get caught."

The researchers also tested their theory that using a higher standard can help sustain motivation late in a competition. They invited more than 2,500 students from two university campuses to sign up for a competitive book donation drive, in which the campus with the most donated books would get cash to buy more books.

The researchers tracked how many students signed up and how many books each donated. Two days from the end of the drive, students at each campus were told whether they were ahead or behind. Some students at both campuses were also told their campus was 10 percent behind their best year for donations. Students at the leading campus who got that additional benchmark subsequently contributed more books than those who didn't.

"In domains where you're uncertain of your ability to win, reference points that make you feel you can do it should be motivating," Etkin said. "But when you already feel confident about your abilities, we want to be comparing ourselves to reference points that are better than we are. Working to close that gap between where we are and where that higher standard is will make us work harder than if we see ourselves as being better than the standard -- which is the case when we know we're in the lead."

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