The Psychology of a Late-Game Lead Invites a Comeback

The Psychology of Late-Game Lead Invites a Comeback
June 27, 2017

Everybody loves a comeback. One competitor performing their best to overcome a deficit before time runs out is the type of moment that can make any competition exciting.

To anybody who watches a lot of sports, it seems like those comeback kids get a lot of help from their opponents. The person or team in the lead often eases up or hits a stretch where nothing goes right.

Buzzer-Beating ShotUNC’s Final Four game against Oregon is a great example. UNC was up by six points with less than a minute left in the game. Things were looking good until Oregon gained 5 points while UNC couldn’t hit a shot. UNC players missed four free-throws with less than 10 seconds to go and a skillful rebound by Kennedy Meeks at the buzzer just barely secured the win for UNC.

The same thing happened to the Falcons at this year’s Superbowl when they allowed the Patriots to make up 31 points in the second half and overtime while only scoring 7 themselves.  In fact, teams and competitors in the lead will frequently stumble within sight of the finish line.

Now psychologists from Duke University, Stanford University and Fudan University have shown that being in the lead toward the end of a competition actually encourages competitors to ease up

In both individual and team competitions, those who knew they were winning near the end of the game consistently underestimated how much they would need to do to secure victory. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"What we found interesting is that as you get closer to the end, you mistake your lead for a win," said Duke Fuqua School of Business marketing professor and co-lead author of the study Jordan Etkin in a press release. "You feel you don't have to work that hard and we see that relaxation of effort."

The researchers staged several competitions to see how people behaved in different game situations. In one experiment, the researchers had volunteers compete in a geography bee against a fake opponent controlled by the researchers.

The researchers told the volunteers that they were either winning or losing near the beginning or the end of the quiz, while some volunteers got no information at all. Close to the end of the game, the volunteers were asked to guess how many more questions they would need to answer correctly to win, and those who were told they were winning consistently guessed fewer than those told they were behind. 

Pie-Eating ContestEtkin says the leaders were more likely to see their situation as almost winning instead of not having won yet. It’s a small distinction, but it often means a world of difference in terms of how hard competitors focus and work to close out a competition.

When the volunteers learned they were winning at the beginning of the competition, however, it motivated them to perform better compared to those told they were losing or knew nothing at all about their opponent.

So how do competitors get beyond that tendency to mail in the last part of a competition? Etkin and her colleagues found that focusing on other motivations besides winning helped them finish strong.

They set up a book drive with more than 2,500 students on two campuses and pitted the campuses against each other. With two days left to go, the researchers informed each campus whether they were winning or losing. They saw the same results as in the geography bee experiment, except they told some students at each campus that they were 10 percent behind their school’s best year ever for donations. The students who saw that extra goal contributed more books than those who did not receive that information.

Essentially, the trick is to swap one motivator for another. When winning does not provide enough motivation, a personal or team goal can push competitors through. Runners and swimmers can chase times, basketball players might want to hit a specific number of points, and trivia players might aim for a perfect score. It works for everything from pro sports to backyard corn hole games to pie-eating contests.

So if you find yourself in the lead, with the taste of victory in your mouth, you may want to shoot for something else until the game is over.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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