The Science Of Being 'Top Dog'

Some people believe competition is an art, others say it is a skill. A recent book suggests it's neither — and there's actually a science behind winning. Host Michel Martin speaks with authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman about their book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing (This interview originally aired on Feb. 25, 2013 on Tell Me More).

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. If you have the day off, you might be spending it with friends and family, but maybe there's somebody missing from the barbecue because you're still mad at them. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the head of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. He talks about why forgiveness can have benefits for the body, as well as the soul. And we'll hear another perspective from somebody who says, sometimes, it's better to just forget about forgiving. That's later.

But, first, we want to talk about something a lot of people find unforgiveable. That's the level of competition we're confronted with throughout our lives these days. Just about everywhere, you have to compete to get ahead. Yes. It's an art, but it turns out, it's also a science, and it turns out that there is a large body of research about what makes a winner. That's the subject of the new book, "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing." It comes from the same team that produced the best-selling "Nurture Shock" that challenged a lot of the conventional wisdom around child-rearing.

They are the authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I spoke with them earlier this year and I began by asking Po Bronson about his past research and why he became interested in this topic.

PO BRONSON: Well, it was an outgrowth of "Nurture Shock" in some ways. I'm president of the Youth Soccer Organization in San Francisco. We have 7,000 kids growing up learning to compete and, for a lot of them, it's the first experience of their lives and I and my wife coach our daughters. She's now in third grade team and our son's team in sixth grade and, you know, when we started on the book a few years ago, we had just built this super soccer team from, you know, some of the stars of the local rec league and, when we put them into this competitive environment where, suddenly, the other kids were every bit as good as them, you saw very divergent responses. I saw some kids who practiced the best on the team who were really suffering in games, and other kids maybe who were not so good in practice, but they were great performers when it counted.

And I was very curious and some of the kids, honestly - they really wanted help and they didn't know why they were going through this and what was happening to them and I wanted to understand and to be able to guide these children.

MARTIN: Ashley, I haven't forgotten about you, but one more question to Po. As a lot of people who had the experience of reading "Nurture Shock" just - it's like they couldn't believe it. And then you pointed out time and time again where the research was far apart from the conventional wisdom. Is there something like that here, where what you've discovered in the research is just really far apart from what most people believe to be true?

BRONSON: The one that was hardest for me to accept, Michel, was the gender differences and competitive styles. As a son of a feminist single working mother, I've never given gender differences much hay before in my life. But here, the science was showing gaps in differences between men and women that were too large to ignore. We still - I kept my head in the sand for a while, but when I began to see that it could be helpful, that it could help us understand - when can we learn from what women are doing right, and when can we learn from what men are doing right to empower all of us, not to point fingers at men or women, but to empower all of us - that I finally started paying attention to the science.

MARTIN: Ashley, what about you? Since we're - it's helpful that we have a gender difference here. Is there something that you found that just, again, knocked your socks off, and you just thought, you know what? That just can't be right, but it is right. That's what the data shows.

ASHLEY MERRYMAN: Well, for me, as well, it was the gender differences. And, you know, I worked in the Clinton White House, and a Cabinet secretary gave me as sort of a mentoring thing, you know, books on leadership that said women aren't competitive. And I was, like, I'm competitive. Everyone I know is competitive. We worked on a presidential campaign. How could I not be competitive?

And it wasn't really until Po and I had found the research of Sarah Fulton, a political science professor at Texas A&M, that really started changing the game for me. She surveyed 835 sitting state legislators, and she asked them two questions: What's the likelihood you're going to run for Congress in the next election? And if you did run, would you win?

And what she found was that, for ambitious legislators, there was no relationship between those questions. If they wanted to run, they were in. But, for women, the answer was: I'm not going to run unless they had at least a 20 percent chance of winning. If it was a 50-50, then the women were in, and the more likely they were going to win, the more likely they were going to compete.

And that's when things really changed for me. It's not about how hard I compete. It's making calculations. When will I compete? And the reason I decide to compete or not is based on thinking about the likelihood of winning. And that doesn't seem to be driving men as much as it does in women.

MARTIN: So, Po Bronson, how does what Ashley just said tie into your general findings about competition styles that you referred to earlier? What did you find out, in general?

BRONSON: Well, to compete well means to take risks that are normally constrained by fear, to try things, to tap into levels of energy that you wouldn't normally do. So risk-taking is a crucial quality of competitiveness. And what the science generalizes to is that if you focus on the odds you tend not to take the risk. If you focus on what you're going to get you tend to jump in and to compete very hard.

MARTIN: But just to put it more bluntly, you found overall - and we're generalizing here. The research showed that women tend to be really good at assessing their own odds or chances for success and acting on those odds, whereas, men tend to be, what, more overconfident? Tend to be less interested in their own odds. Is that about right?

BRONSON: And men are good at ignoring the odds, you might put it that way if you want to flatter them. And sometimes ignoring the odds is important if you're an entrepreneur or you want to run for Congress and people are telling you you don't have the chance but you feel like it's still too important not to do. You know, the people who, in Egypt, who flocked to Tahrir Square, they weren't focusing on their odds of toppling the regime. They were focused on the prize of freedom. So there's times in our lives that taking this risk and ignoring the odds is crucial. There are other domains where being very good at calculating the risk is super important, such as on Wall Street.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that is a point that fascinated me in the book. Risk assessment is actually a pretty good skill to have on Wall Street, right, particularly if you're managing other people's money. But, the percentage of women analysts on Wall Street is actually dropping. Why is that?

MERRYMAN: In the 1980s there were about only eight percent of financial analysts were females and then that rose to 20 percent, but now it's back down to 16 and it doesn't seem to be improving. And what's really interesting about this is a researcher out of the University of Texas, Alok Kumar, looked at every financial analyst report. Now these weren't buy and sell recommendations, they were predictions of what companies would be making in that next quarter. But that's what all of us really want to know, right? It was almost three million reports, almost 20,000 analysts and almost 20 different stocks being analyzed. And he found that women were 7.3 percent more accurate in their analysis than the men were.

Now that was phenomenal, but when he looked at it even further he found that the women analysts were actually bolder in their predictions. They were doing less what they call, herding. So they're changing their assessment where everyone on the street says that they're wrong. But that then doesn't help you understand: Why aren't women getting those jobs? Why aren't there more women in Wall Street? And that...

MARTIN: Yeah. So why aren't there?

MERRYMAN: Right. Actually at that point, the careful risk analysis and the ability to judge really well may now be working against women in their own careers. Because if you picture two candidates coming into an office trying to get an interview and trying to get a job, right? The job is to sell yourself, convince them that you're the best person in the room. But the male will come in and say this is the number of stocks I've covered, this is the number of successes I've had and this is how much, you know, new business I'm going to bring you. And there's going to be some inflating of that, there's overconfidence. The woman will come in and apply that same careful risk analysis to her own work. She'll be under confident. She'll assume that the people she's actually trying to vie for the job may even have better qualifications. So rather than overselling herself, she's underselling herself. And then...

MARTIN: Or maybe it's bias.

MERRYMAN: Well, no. I...

MARTIN: Or maybe it's the hiring people just like hiring people who look like them.

MERRYMAN: You know, the research I really think is that the women are actually misrepresenting and misremembering their own performance, so there wasn't actually discrimination, it was that people believed the woman when she said I did OK on this but not great.

MARTIN: That's troubling.

BRONSON: You know - well, I'll just - you know, Michel, I'll just pipe in here with you and I'll just say and maybe there is a bias, like...

MERRYMAN: Well, yeah. I mean I can't say there isn't any, obviously.

BRONSON: I used to work on Wall Street. You know, my mom was a stockbroker and she made no money there and was badly treated. And when I was a bond salesman I saw women badly treated. And there's a long history in Wall Street of that. To some extent, Wall Street fails in making a distinction of who should be measuring risks versus who should be taking risk. To some extent, the young boys club of Wall Street, that's kind of what it takes to put all this money on the line and do these crazy things with money is to be somewhat ignorant of the odds.

MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, our guests are Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. They wrote the newly released book, "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing." They are the team behind the best-selling "Nurture Shock" and they're bringing that deep dive into new research about this important question around competitiveness.

One of the things - the points that you make in the book is that young people, you know, on teams or in elite schools compete in how they actually handle pressure. And one of your fascinating findings about adolescents competing in elite schools I think some people might be very surprised by, you found that a lot of young women actually handle the competition better than their male counterparts. Po, why would that be?

BRONSON: You know it's an elite school when you attend, no matter what your parents might tell you, and kids, you know, even when they're little on their soccer games and the parents don't keep score and the coaches don't keep score, the kids keep score in that same way in school. They're very conscious of how they rank versus other people around them - boys, especially. So, boys are great for, like, turning dishwashing into a game and making fun of it and laughing it off and de-stressing. But school is kind of a game and kind of not a game. It's real life and it wears on the boys harder. They're not as good at asking for help.

A phenomenon in elite schools, and this is actually researched from around the world, which shows that whether the girls are on top or in the middle or slightly below, they do terrific in elite schools. But boys in elite schools, if they're on top, they do wonderfully. But the boys on top tend to suppress the results of their peers who are slightly inferior to them. And to be somewhat on the bottom in elite schools, those kids actually would learn would learn more by going to a less elite less competitive school. Being a little fish in a big pond is a particularly bad experience for them. Girls can handle it and it's a long competition. Girls are better at turning those comparisons off a little bit while boys can't.

MARTIN: How can we translate this into something that very much preoccupies many people in the public sphere right now, which is these so-called achievement gaps? This is something that we've been reporting on a lot. You hear the president talking about it a lot. Really policymakers at every level talking about first of all, the gap in college attendance and completion that's now opening up between boys and girls, and then secondly, the racial achievement gap that's showing up between African-Americans and Latinos and Asians and whites. Is there something that you learned in the course of reporting this book that you think would be helpful for people to think about?

MERRYMAN: Well, I was really struck by a study that sort of - researchers convinced the college board and the ETS, the people who administer AP tests, to move those demographic questions that you ask what school do you want this report going to, what's your name, your gender and your ethnicity. For the AP calculus in an experiment they moved those questions to the end of the test instead of before the test. And what they found is that 4,000 girls would probably pass the AP calculus test more each year if they always had the demographic questions at the end. Just reminding the girls at the beginning of the calculus test you're a girl and you're not supposed to do well at math was enough to change the results.

So I think we need to really think about that kind of stuff when we're talking about admissions and looking at populations.

MARTIN: Po, anything you want to add to that?

BRONSON: Yeah. Well, Ashley's calling attention to performance in these standardized tests. On the SAT, it bothers me that the same test is used for Harvard applicants as is used for California state college applicants. You know, on the math section there's 54 questions. Maybe 30 of those are needed to help determine whether a kid meets the sufficient baseline to go to a Cal State College. The other 24 questions are really not for those kids. They're there to sort out all those people trying to go to the Ivy Leagues to see who is best on those. But to the kid who's just trying to get into Cal State, they are going to see those really tough questions on a test and have no idea how to solve them and that makes it much more difficult for them.

MARTIN: Po, I'm going to finish up where we started out, which is you started out saying that a lot of people, you included, really don't want to believe that these differences exist. I mean, gender is one, there's also race, which we didn't talk a lot about here. Are we better off knowing these things or not? I mean some people think that calling attention to these differences just gives people more opportunity to draw distinctions inappropriately. What do you think now that you've done a deep dive into this stuff?

BRONSON: Oh, I've tried to make sure it's empowering, Michel. So I coach the girls' soccer team now, third grade girls. You know, we uncovered this research by Joyce Benenson, which is how girls grow up in pairs taking turns, being equals. And they were talking about preschool ages, while boys spend their free time playing in groups, competing to be heard, tolerating conflict and opposition in these groups. And so coaching the girls, we say to them stop taking turns. It's not your turn to kick the ball then the other team's turn to kick the ball then your turn to kick the ball. And it makes sense to them that it's always supposed always be their turn. So in terms of raising my daughter and sort of raising those girls to learn how to do this, I feel like this has been very important information.

Same thing for my wife who has been talking to new companies, she's an immunologist and develops cancer drugs. You know, it's helping her to understand, to talk about winning losing. She has some major wins in her recent life in terms of drugs that she's developed, but she doesn't think to talk about them, she doesn't think to assert herself like that. And I feel like if people can understand that these sometimes small things are tripping them up they will perform much better and achieve the kind of equality we want to have.

MARTIN: Ashley, what about you?

MERRYMAN: Well, I definitely don't think we want to use any of the science to pigeonhole people. I mean what we've learned is that there isn't an ideal type of competitor. There are a lot of different types of competitors and by knowing the science you can see where your strengths and your weaknesses are. You can look for competitions that suit you. And if you're into something that's uncomfortable, like a high-stakes test, you can sort of prepare for it differently if you know the science.

Po and I write about how people can be playing to win or playing not to lose. And when you're playing to win you're thinking in sort of a big picture and you're looking for successes and how can you build on what you are doing right, don't worry about time and you're just going to go for it. And people who are playing not to lose are preventing mistakes. They're trying to stave off what they think is the eminent disaster in the things that work for them are hearing about the things they've screwed up because now they can prevent more things. And I think it's easy to switch into that playing not to lose mentality. But if you want to grow, if you want to challenge yourself, if you want to innovate, you have to force yourself to be playing to win.

MARTIN: Ashley Merryman, along with Po Bronson, are authors of the new book, "Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing." And they were kind enough to join us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MERRYMAN: Thank you.

BRONSON: Thank you, Michel.

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