Near Victories | Hidden Brain Shankar Vedantam explores "almosts" and "not quites" on this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, with the help of Monica Wadhwa, Dan Pink and country music singer Kacey Musgraves.
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Near Wins, And Not Quites: How Almost Winning Can Be Motivating

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Near Wins, And Not Quites: How Almost Winning Can Be Motivating

Near Wins, And Not Quites: How Almost Winning Can Be Motivating

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This is the HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In this episode, we're going to talk about near misses...




UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This one is for the kids.

VEDANTAM: And not quites.

First, we're going to talk about research that shows that coming close to winning something can really affect your drive and motivation.

MONICA WADHWA: You want to build that thing in that, hey, you're almost there.

VEDANTAM: Then my friend, Daniel Pink, will join us for a round of Stopwatch Science. He's going to explain how the psychology of getting close to a goal can help charities raise more money.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: Why do people give? People give not because they want to be altruistic, but because they want to be effective.

VEDANTAM: Finally, we'll ask singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves to put on an imaginary lab coat and join us for a game of Mad Scientist.

KACEY MUSGRAVES: Does my lab coat have rhinestones on it?

VEDANTAM: We'll ask her to explain a song from her album "Pageant Material," and we'll learn what world peace has to do with swimsuits.

OK, near misses - Monica Wadhwa is a professor at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore. She studies marketing. And recently, in her research, she hit upon a strange but promising way to change how consumers behave.

WADHWA: It's funny because this came from one of my childhood experiences, actually.

VEDANTAM: To understand this idea, let's travel back in time to Monica's childhood.

WADHWA: I was born and brought up in India, in Delhi.

VEDANTAM: Like many 13-year-olds, Monica had a craze. Now, her craze was somewhat unusual. It was buying lottery tickets.

WADHWA: As a child, I kind of wanted to have tons of money, right? So - and I was lazy, so lottery tickets was my answer to good life.

VEDANTAM: She played the lottery constantly.

WADHWA: I remember those days we could buy lottery tickets. There used to be stores. You could just go get a lottery ticket for - I remember paying 10 rupees for it at that time. And you buy this lottery ticket, and if you get, like, a certain set of numbers - if you get all of that correct, you could get a jackpot.

VEDANTAM: How many digits did it have?

WADHWA: I think it's a six.

VEDANTAM: So it was that you have to get - the lottery sort of requires you to match all six digits to win the prize.


VEDANTAM: There was a problem, though. Her dad worried that her passion for the lottery was distracting her from her schoolwork. A big exam was coming up, and he needed her to focus. Not to mention, her habit was costing him a ton of money. But Monica kept buying lottery tickets until one day.

WADHWA: When I insisted on getting more, he was like, no more. That's it. You know, I don't know about you becoming a millionaire. I'm definitely going to go bankrupt.

VEDANTAM: So they worked out a deal. Her dad would allow her to buy one last lottery ticket before the big exam, which she did. And then she waited for the results.

WADHWA: The results would come in a particular newspaper.

VEDANTAM: So describe to me exactly what happened when that paper arrived that morning. Do you remember anything about the day at all?

WADHWA: I don't remember the exact thing. I just remember the emotions, you know? I remember I was supremely excited, you know? You're, like, kind of like in a trance. Did I win it? Did I get it? And looking at the first - yes, it matched. Second - yes, it matched. Third - yes, it matched. And I'm just there. I am going to be a millionaire in just about one second, right? Fourth one matched.

VEDANTAM: And then the fifth.

WADHWA: Damn, it did not.

VEDANTAM: She lost.

WADHWA: I got my 10 rupees back.

VEDANTAM: But the thing is, in that moment, 13-year-old Monica's emotions were not what you might expect. She was actually happy.

WADHWA: I think I was still excited, even after. It was like, oh, hey, I almost got it.

VEDANTAM: And so your reaction when you got 4 out of 6 - you were not dejected? You were not, oh, my God, that was so close. I could've been so rich. And now I just get my 10 rupees back.

WADHWA: It was kind of mixed feeling. You know, it was like, yes, there was a little bit of dejection but maybe it's just me. But there was a lot more excitement. I was an almost winner, you know? I was almost there. I got it. How many people actually get almost there?

VEDANTAM: And this is where she surprised her dad, and maybe even herself. She didn't slack off before the exam.

WADHWA: I actually worked harder. Really, I remember, I was very excited for the exam because I just wanted to work much harder.

VEDANTAM: Monica's best recollection of her performance in the exam?

WADHWA: I think I did well.

VEDANTAM: Monica realized later that after she had nearly won the lottery, she had a strong leftover urge to succeed, to do well at something, anything.

WADHWA: Just the desire to get something. And that something happened to be the exam that it latched on to, I guess.

VEDANTAM: Fast-forward a couple decades, and this childhood experience has now become the focus of Monica's academic research in marketing.

WADHWA: When you get closer to a reward, your motivation intensifies as you approach the reward. But when you miss it, you have this intensified motivational state, which is not satisfied now. And our theory was that this intensified but not satisfied motivation will spill over and will make you seek other unrelated rewards now.

VEDANTAM: She and her colleagues recently tested this theory in a number of ways. In one experiment, they recruited people to play a videogame.

WADHWA: We designed a game. They're - they had to uncover some tiles. And if they uncovered eight diamonds, they could win a reward.

VEDANTAM: By design, some people clearly won the game. Some clearly lost. And then others...

WADHWA: They missed the reward just by one diamond.

VEDANTAM: Monica wanted to know about that last group's almost when.

WADHWA: Would that motivate them to seek another reward? So we kind of secretly measured how much time, for example, it takes them to reach another reward, like a chocolate bar, which they could collect from another booth. People who nearly won, they worked much faster to get the chocolate. They were much more eager to get the second unrelated reward as compared to those who won or those who clearly lost.

VEDANTAM: You actually had a chocolate bar at another station. And you actually measured how (laughter)...

WADHWA: Right.

VEDANTAM: ...How fast people took to walk to that second station?


VEDANTAM: And your theory is that people were walking faster, in some ways, because they had nearly missed the first reward. And that put them...

WADHWA: Exactly.

VEDANTAM: ...In a state where they basically said, my desire for the next reward is even higher.

WADHWA: Right.

VEDANTAM: Turns out, the video game's near winners also salivated more when they stared at money, which I had to ask about. What's the connection between salivation (laughter) and watching money? You're not going to eat the money.

WADHWA: That is true. But salivation has been shown to be a measure of desire. So when you desire something, you salivate more.

VEDANTAM: In a second experiment, the researchers gave people lottery tickets outside a shopping mall. Again, the idea was that some people would win, some people would lose and some would be near winners. The researchers then measured how much the near winners spent once they entered the mall.

WADHWA: They spent a lot more than those who clearly lost or those who won. And this was, like, a really cool thing because from a marketing perspective, marketers think that winning will actually make them spend more. But this was just the other way around.

VEDANTAM: Monica says the experience of nearly winning something can motivate people of all ages. I'm wondering if it has implications for things like parenting as well and management of people in the workforce. I mean, so if you're trying to get your kid to practice the piano, for example, in some ways, sort of not getting the sticker from the teacher every week might actually be better than...

WADHWA: Right.

VEDANTAM: ...Reliably getting the sticker every single week.

WADHWA: Right, absolutely. If you get it each day, every day, you are totally satiated. You want to build that thing in, that, hey, you're almost there. You're just there but not quite there.

VEDANTAM: That's Monica Wadhwa, professor of marketing at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore. After this break, we're going to be joined by my friend, Daniel Pink, for another round of Stopwatch Science.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We'd like to say a quick thank you to one of our sponsors, helps businesses avoid time-consuming trips to the post office. With you use your own computer and printer to print official U.S. postage for any letter or package, and then the mailman picks it up. No more wasting time going to the post office or wasting money on expensive postage meters. Right now, listeners of this podcast can use the promo code BRAIN for a special offer, a four-week trial plus a digital scale and free postage. Go to, click on the microphone and type in BRAIN.

VEDANTAM: Back now for another round of Stopwatch Science. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

PINK: And I'm Daniel Pink.

VEDANTAM: Dan is our senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. He's also the author of several books about human behavior. On Stopwatch Science, Dan and I give one another 60 seconds to summarize interesting social science research. I'll run a stopwatch as Dan speaks. And here's the buzzer he's going to hear if he exceeds his time.


VEDANTAM: That's not the sound of a dinner gong, Dan. That's a sound that says you need to stop.

PINK: That like a Chuck Barris "Gong Show" gong. You're off the stage.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) What's the sound of my buzzer, Dan?

PINK: You're going to hear this sound right here.


PINK: Little bit of a "Looney Tunes" sound is appropriate for this segment.

VEDANTAM: All right, that is a profoundly irritating sound, and I'm going to try and make sure I don't get to hear it. Our topic today is about near wins. As you just heard, Monica Wadhwa found that getting close to a win can boost your motivation and drive. Dan and I are going to look at several other factors right now. Dan, if you're ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Well, those of us who've taken psychology 101 probably remember the famous study that showed when a rat gets closer to food, the rat moves faster, OK? So this is a study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology asking the important question, what if someone else is the rat and something else is the food? So what they did is they looked at charities. When do we make gifts to charity? And they looked at donations to Kiva, the online charity, and they found, not surprisingly, that as people got closer to their stated goal, giving went dramatically up. Then they also did a study where they simulated a kid named Sheila. And they said Sheila has two candy bars to sell to hit her quota versus 32 candy bars to sell to hit a quota. Not surprisingly, they gave more money when Sheila was only two away. And this goes to, really, why do people give to charity? Some of it's to be altruistic and relieve negative emotions...


PINK: ...But it's also so they can feel effective. And that's what near wins do.

VEDANTAM: All right, great. I hope my gong was effective. It certainly got Dan to stop speaking. I think this is fascinating though, Dan, because, of course, we all feel that as we get closer to the goal, it's actually attainable.

PINK: Right, what I think was interesting about this is that someone else was actually pursuing the goal. What you were doing is you were giving a little bit of a lift. And you're more likely to give that person some assistance when that person is nearing the goal.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and public radio stations do this all the time. Instead of saying our goal two million dollars, they say our goal for this segment...

PINK: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: ...Is $60,000 because it makes people feel that they can actually get to that goal that's more attainable.

PINK: Well, our goal for this segment is to see if Shankar can do his study...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: 60 seconds. And his time starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, so if you want to know how to motivate people, it's very important to ask where they are in the process of reaching their goal. Are they just starting out or are they nearly on their way to the goal? Are they nearly at the win? Very much like you're just saying, Dan, C.G. Wong (ph) at the University of Texas at Austin recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found that where you are in the process makes a big difference in your motivation. When we are in the early stages of a challenge, it's important to have multiple options. If you hear there are six different ways you can give money to a public radio station, you're more likely to stay engaged in the pledge drive. On the other hand, as you get close to the win, having more options turns into a hindrance. In one study, as a blood donation drive started to approach its final stages, people were more likely to be willing to donate blood when they were given a single way to do so, rather than given multiple ways. So in other words, at the early stages of a quest, having lots of options gives us a reason not to lose hope. As you approach the win, having lots of options becomes a distraction.


PINK: Oh, you were out of options but you came in right on time.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Yeah, it's interesting. It's - we can think of it as kind of a motivational funnel. You start wide, then as you get closer and closer, you go narrow.

VEDANTAM: I love the funnel idea. Dan has reached the narrow end of his funnel...

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...Because his next 60 seconds starts right now.

PINK: OK, so we've talked a lot about the positive elements of near wins. Let's talk about the dark side of near wins. And this is a study from the journal, Neuron, using two of my all-time favorite technologies, fMRIs - functional magnetic resonance imagers - and slot machines.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: And here's what they did. They put a bunch of participants in these fMRIs and had them play slot machines. But the slot machines, of course, were rigged, as all (laughter) slot machines are, I guess.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Exactly.

PINK: So sometimes the participants won, and a certain region of their brain was activated. But then they had them lose, just by a hair. And you know what? The exact same region was activated.


PINK: So what happened is when they won, their brain said let's play again. And then when they lost, they said let's play again. So this is the dark side of near wins. They're - almost have an addictive quality.


PINK: Which is why you should stay out of Vegas, unless you bring your fMRI.

VEDANTAM: I love this study, Dan, because actually it meshes so nicely with what Monica Wadhwa was talking about, which is the effect of coming very close to a win is actually very similar in the brain to actually winning.

PINK: Yes, and you're very close to winning here 'cause you have one minute for your next study. And it starts now.

VEDANTAM: All right, so this is one of my favorite studies on the science of motivation. I talked about it with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition some months ago. Max Ostinelli of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, along with David Luna and Torsten Ringberg, they recently analyzed how movement can effect motivation. And they find that telling or showing people they're moving upward or downward can impair or increase their drive and motivation. In one experiment, the researchers asked people to imagine riding up 20 floors in an elevator or riding down 20 floors in an elevator. The volunteers are then given math puzzles to solve in three minutes. And what the researchers find is that the volunteers who imagined going down solved more math problems than volunteers who imagined going upward. And the difference wasn't trivial. It was a 30 percent difference.

PINK: Whoa.

VEDANTAM: The researchers think this is happening because as you move upward, your self-esteem gets boosted. And when you feel better about yourself, you say who cares? Why do I need to solve math problems? I feel pretty good already. So this study suggests, Dan, that the next time you and I sit down to record Stopwatch Science, instead of sitting on the fourth floor of NPR, we're going to go to the basement.


PINK: I'm in. I'm in. Absolutely - absolutely fascinating. And, of course, neither one of us has an overconfidence problem, so that shouldn't be a factor here.

VEDANTAM: Absolutely right. I'm sure it doesn't affect us whatsoever.

PINK: Yeah, not at all.

VEDANTAM: I'm hearing our producers say they're going to build a new basement in the studio. All right, this has been another round of Stopwatch Science. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

PINK: And I'm Daniel Pink.

VEDANTAM: After this break, I have a special guest joining me in the studio, country music singer Kacey Musgraves. Stay with us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for this episode of HIDDEN BRAIN comes from Casper. They're an online retailer for mattresses. Casper mattresses are American-made and obsessively engineered for comfort. They use two technologies, latex foam memory foam, to give just the right amount of sink and balance. And they have a risk-free trial. You can try out your Casper mattress for 100 days with free delivery and returns. It's outrageous comfort at a polite price. So go to to check out their options. And they have a special offer for listeners of this podcast. Use the promo code HIDDENBRAIN to redeem $50 towards a Casper mattress that works for you.

VEDANTAM: Since you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN, I think you'd like another NPR podcast, Invisibilia. Listen to six episodes about ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions from hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel. You can find Invisibilia on the NPR One app or at

Now we're going to introduce you to a new segment that we're calling "Mad Scientist." Our first victim, country music singer, Kacey Musgraves. Kacey thanks for joining me on THE HIDDEN BRAIN.

MUSGRAVES: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: Kacey was just upstairs at NPR to perform a Tiny Desk Concert. Her new album is called "Pageant Material."


MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I ain't pageant material. I'm always higher than my hair, and it ain't that I don't care about world peace. But I don't see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.

VEDANTAM: As I listened to the album, Kacey, I told myself there is no possible way anyone has done social science research that looks at the connection between world peace and wearing a swimsuit on a stage. And wouldn't you know it? I was wrong.

MUSGRAVES: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: So it turns out I came by work out of Arizona State University that looks at how beauty pageant winners go on to win political office. So between 2000 and 2010, something like 12 percent of all female governors elected in the United States were former beauty pageant contestants.


VEDANTAM: And among them, of course, we have Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, beauty pageant contestant. If John McCain had been elected president, she would be vice president today in all likelihood. She might have been the frontrunner for president in 2016. And in 2017, she might have had her finger on the big, red nuclear button.

MUSGRAVES: Who knows?

VEDANTAM: So you tell me, Kacey, can wearing a swimsuit on a stage have anything to do with world peace?

MUSGRAVES: (Laughter) Maybe it's to do with the brain in the swimsuit.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MUSGRAVES: I don't know.

VEDANTAM: Where did the idea for "Pageant Material" come from?

MUSGRAVES: So "Pageant Material" was written with two friends of mine, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, and Shane is from the South. He's from Texas, as am I. So we both kind of grew up in this area where that was the total normal thing. You know, that was the thing girls really wanted to do. And he had this title - he said I really want to write a song called "Pageant Material." And I just thought, I can totally get behind that. I mean, it's just like a lighthearted song, just kind of poking fun at myself for not being, you know - maybe up to, like, industry pageant standards. And sometimes in the music industry, there's expectations for women to maybe act a certain way, and I've found myself in certain situations where I don't come up to par with some of those things.

VEDANTAM: And so when that happens, do you feel critical about yourself? Or do you say, look, these are silly social norms. I'm glad I'm actually not following them?

MUSGRAVES: The latter for sure. I mean, you know - I think there's always going to be people that are looking to find something wrong with what you're doing or, you know, picking you apart. But I think it's always best just to be yourself, and if that means, you know, you're not smiling at a certain point or this or that, you know - if it's what you're feeling, you know, to a certain extent, I think you should do it.

VEDANTAM: All right. So that's a great segue into our game, and so I'm going to tell you how we play "Mad Scientist." Social scientists are constantly coming up with crazy studies and experiments. So on "Mad Scientist," I'm going to tell you about a piece of social science research. And you put on your imaginary lab coat and try and deduce what the research experiment discovered. Does that sound like a plan?

MUSGRAVES: Does my lab could have rhinestones on it?


MUSGRAVES: It does. Since it's fictitious, it does. OK.

VEDANTAM: I think you get to pick the kind of lab coat you want.


VEDANTAM: So yours definitely has rhinestones.


VEDANTAM: So we're listening to your title song, "Pageant Material." I was struck by a line in the song that talks about how you feel about being runner-up.


MUSGRAVES: (Singing) God bless the girls who smile and hug when they're called out as a runner-up on TV. I wish I could, but I just can't wear a smile when a smile ain't what I'm feelin'.

VEDANTAM: All right, so here's the experiment. Many years ago, Thomas Gilovich, who is a psychologist at Cornell University - he and his colleagues collected videotape of all the silver and bronze medal winners at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, all right? So the video clips showed the immediate reactions - the first reactions - when athletes discovered they had won either silver or bronze. Now here's the question, and I want you to think it through aloud. We all know that winning silver is better than winning bronze - coming in second is better than coming in third. When Gilovich and his colleagues examined the videos, do you think they found that the silver medal winners looked happier than the bronze medal winners, or did they find that the bronze medal winners looked happier than the silver medal winners?

MUSGRAVES: Can I ask you questions?

VEDANTAM: You certainly can.

MUSGRAVES: Where's the gold winner in this?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) The gold winner is off jumping exuberantly.

MUSGRAVES: So he's already been announced?

VEDANTAM: Yes. He or she has been announced.


VEDANTAM: And, you know - he's jumping up and down. But this experiment is only looking at silver and bronze medal winners.

MUSGRAVES: Well, I can't help but feel like this is a massive trick.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) No.


VEDANTAM: Of course not.

MUSGRAVES: Well, dang. I would say obviously silver because it's a higher rank. But maybe even knowing that you got bronze and you're not totally out - man. This is a hard one.

VEDANTAM: All right. So I'm going to give you a clue. The clue has to do with who you're comparing yourself against - that our happiness levels and our satisfaction with what we get in life is often not just tied to what we have, but it's often tied in comparison to what other people have. So who does a silver medal compare himself or herself to and who does a bronze medal compare himself or herself to? And that's the clue to the answer.

MUSGRAVES: Oh, yeah. So maybe there's a bigger letdown with silver comparing themselves to the ultimate winner, but there is more joy in a bronze winner knowing that they're not a loser at all.

VEDANTAM: So that's your answer?


VEDANTAM: Kacey Musgraves you are correct.



VEDANTAM: You have won "Mad Scientist."

MUSGRAVES: Can I keep my lab coat?

VEDANTAM: I think you have to return the lab coat. NPR holds onto all the rhinestone lab coats, I'm afraid. It's just company policy.

MUSGRAVES: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if this actually tells you anything about your own life. You know the idea that when you compare yourself - who you're comparing yourself to actually determines how happy you're going to be? And it makes no sense that bronze medal winners would compare themselves against people who were the total losers and therefore felt happy.

MUSGRAVES: It's interesting.

VEDANTAM: And the silver medal winners compared themselves to the gold and they felt unhappy, but that's exactly what Gilovich and his colleagues found.

MUSGRAVES: That's so crazy. I mean, I can totally see that. I heard a quote recently, and I think it was - I'm going to get this wrong, but - comparison is the ultimate thief of joy.


MUSGRAVES: Or something like that.

VEDANTAM: Because they're always going to be people who have more than you. And they'll always be people who have less than you. And so you constantly go through life comparing ourselves to all these people and then feeling these silly aspects of happiness and sorrow.

MUSGRAVES: Yes - some void when it's like - if you could just look at yourself instead, you might come away way more happy.

VEDANTAM: Wonderful. That's Kacey Musgraves. Her new album is called "Pageant Material." Kacey, thank you for playing "Mad Scientist" with me on THE HIDDEN BRAIN.

MUSGRAVES: Thanks for the challenge.


VEDANTAM: To hear more Kacey Musgraves check out her Tiny Desk Concert at NPR music. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, join us on Facebook and Twitter and listen to my NPR stories on your local public radio station. THE HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Allison and Maggie Penman. Special thanks this week to Chris Benderev, Bob Boilen and Jacob Ganz. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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