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Love to Lose?

Student's picture

Competition is found in everything that we do. It’s a reason why we’re still alive, and it brings us highs and lows. Most will agree that the highs come from winning, and the lows, from losing. However, research has shown that these generalizations may not hold true, finding that some people feel more stress after winning than, as expected, after losing.

Studies were done at the University of Michigan to investigate competition and the brain’s response (1). One hundred and eight college students were taken and shown photographs, for example, of two men biking. They were then asked to write a response to each photograph. This was done to find the participant’s non-conscious need to dominate others, or, more formally, their ‘implicit power motive’ (2). The researchers found that a large group wrote about a competition between the two men, and another large group analyzed the bike situation more as a casual ride between two friends. From this, they grouped the people with the more aggressive responses into a “wolves group”, and those with the less aggressive responses into a “sheep” group.

The researchers then had the participants play a video game, after which each participant was told that he or she had won. After, the researchers measured each participant’s cortisol level, as they had done before the gaming had taken place, to gauge the participants’ levels of the stress hormone. They found a correlation between the stress levels of those at the extreme end of the wolves group, and those at the extreme end of the sheep group. The most aggressive wolves had significantly higher cortisol levels after losing, while the most sheepish sheep had higher levels after winning (1, 2). They concluded that some people, unconsciously, would rather lose than win.

I think that this study is interesting, in that it categorizes two groups of people and that the stress levels hold true at the extremes, but there’s a large intermediary group to account for, and that’s going to be harder to breakdown. The concepts of winning and losing are interesting, because, while winning implies being the best, there are always going to be people who weren’t the best, people who are then deemed ‘losers’ because of us and because of our triumph. There’s also the element of what is then expected of us- is more expected, which means more pressure, or is that pressure a motivator, something we need in order to strive for the best?

Breaking competition down further, I wanted to find what it is in the brain that controls competition levels, or what, as we so know it as, is responsible for some people having the urge to compete, and others being happier when everyone’s at the same level. I found that there’s a part of the brain, the amygdala, that has been found to have some distinguished response between winning and losing, and adds more solidity to the belief that different responses are chemically triggered when a person comes in either first or last.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons deep in the medial temporal lobes of the brain (3), may have control over how competitive a person is. This part of the brain, thought to primarily perform the role of processing the memories of emotional reactions, has been found to react to winning and losing differently (4). Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure regional brain activity when subjects were given feedback to their performance on small tasks, the researchers looked for a correlation between positive feedback and some response, and negative feedback and a different response. They found that the parametric increase of more positive feedback and having “winning” was associated with left amygdala activation, while the more negative parametric increase of “losing” was associated with right amygdala activation (4). This was used to show that the amygdala responds differently to the two types of stimuli, meaning that it has some role in the area of competition.

The amygdala, also thought to be partially responsible for binge-eating (5), men’s sex drives (6), the emotional aspect of fear (7), and many other things, plays an important role in understanding why we are the way that we are. In this study, the researchers found opposite sides of the amygdala responding when the participants were told that they had either won or lost. I wonder if there’s a way to further distinguish, and to correlate with the other study- to separate the “sheep” from the “wolves” in relation to which side of the amygdala responds in each situation. I would have expected less certainty from this study because of the findings that some people don’t actually like to win and so a different brain response might have been expected. Granted, this study assumes a positive association with winning and a negative association with losing, which is solely what the other study set out to distinguish.

Winning and losing are categories- categories that are associated with whatever connotation we have been brought up to believe. Being the best at something may be what we all strive for, our ultimate goal, but it’s interesting to think that we may not want what we actually are convinced we do. If a part of our brain is responsible for sending out certain hormones that make us stressed when we think we are happy, then there’s a major problem… or is there? If we are absolutely convinced that winning is the best, or close to it, and when we win, we think we’re happy, then does that need to change because of certain chemical evidence? Competition is constructive. It’s why there have been so many advances in the world, and why we push ourselves harder each time. We need to learn how significant the negative the effects of competition are on the body when someone is not able acknowledge his or her needs. If someone is the champion of some sport, and then is told that they don’t actually enjoy the thrill- that it produces stress- how much will that be worth? Are our strong conscious feelings worth ignoring our unconscious, chemical needs? As more research is being done as to why some people have a negative response to winning (when they think they are in fact happy), and how the brain controls this, we’re left to compete and win and lose, and decide how we feel, even if our brains disagree.


1. “Are you a Wolf or a Sheep?”

2. “Born Losers”

3. “Amygdala"

4. “Different Amygdala Responses to Winning and Losing: a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study in Humans”

5. Brain Region May Control Urge to Binge Eat

6. Activity of Brain May Control Men's Sex Drives

7. Gene May Explain Emotional Aspect of Fear