Rooting for the underdogs? They may not care

I have discovered why I lack motivation and it’s everyone else’s fault. I knew that, of course, I just didn’t have hard data. OK, I still don’t have hard data, but I have some data, which is good enough.

A couple of researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University conducted several studies about motivation between competing groups. Their findings were contrary to common belief. It is generally assumed that the underdogs in a competition are more motivated because they have a chance to raise their status by knocking off the big dogs. But this may not be true.

In five separate studies, Nathan Pettit of Cornell and Robert Lount of Ohio State asked students to perform simple tasks, such as crossing out all the vowels in a string of letters within a set amount of time. The tasks were kept simple so they wouldn’t be testing skill, just motivation. Then the students were told that students from another campus were doing the same task at the same time. It was clearly billed as a competition. Sometimes the other campus was more highly ranked according to the US News and World Report, and other times it was ranked the same or lower.

When students thought they were competing against a lower-ranked campus, they completed about 30 percent more items than students who were competing against an equally ranked campus, or a higher-ranked campus. But here is the interesting twist: The lower-ranked campus students did just as well against equal- and higher-rank campuses. It was the higher-ranked campuses pitted against lower-ranked campuses that worked harder.

They conclude that the threat of losing status is greater than the opportunity to gain status.

In another part of the experiment, they also had some students write an affirmation paper about their good qualities, and those of their university. According to the researchers, this was done to help the subjects feel secure in their group identity. Some students were not required to write such affirmations. Students who wrote affirmations completed fewer tasks than those who did not. Apparently, affirmed students felt less threatened, and that it was less necessary to work hard to complete tasks. They already felt secure in their value. So if we give children high self-esteem, do we destroy motivation?

Let’s see if I understand this. If I don’t think I am as good as you, I will not work harder against you than against anyone else? But if I am clearly superior, I will work harder to make sure I stay superior? But if I only think I am superior I will work less hard to stay ahead of you, because I already think I am ahead of you? So anything short of being actually superior to someone else is unmotivational? I think I am confused.

The researchers think they have found one of the reasons that people are competitive. I’m not sure I agree with this study. For one thing, it is based on the assumption that everyone is competitive. As strange as it may sound, there are those who simply are not that into beating other people at anything. But people may be competitive, or not, for many different reasons.

Here are some alternative ideas.

Perhaps only the people at higher-ranked colleges even know, or care, what their college rank is. They try harder while the others were unaware they were even considered inferior. And if students who attend lesser-ranked colleges don’t really care about rank, then that may be why they have chosen to attend lesser-ranked colleges. Maybe it’s just cheaper. Perhaps students at lower-ranked colleges just don’t care very much about silly tasks comparing them to other people. And maybe they just don’t care very much when engaged in unskilled tasks.

But anyway, one thing is clear. I lack motivation because I have undeserved, high self-esteem, and it’s everyone else’s fault for encouraging me.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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