In this year’s NBA playoffs the Dallas Mavericks displayed an uncanny ability to come from behind and win. Uncanny because to do so implies a defiance of expectation – teams that are ahead should, obviously, have a greater chance of winning a game. However, new research from Jonah Berger and Devin Pope suggests that once we account for some basic psychological principles of motivation, the odds of winning might, in some cases, be reversed. In other words, being behind by a little can actually increase a team’s likelihood of winning.

The authors’ hypothesis is based on two insights from behavioral economics: loss aversion and diminishing sensitivity. We don’t like losing, and our efforts have greater marginal impact as we get closer to a goal. This suggests that teams that are behind should be motivated to catch up, and this motivation to catch up should increase as the discrepancy between scores diminishes. To test this theory they turned to the tapes and analyzed all NBA basketball games from 1993 through March 2009 with this simple question in mind: would teams that are slightly behind at halftime be more likely to win games than teams that are slightly ahead?

Not surprisingly, the further ahead teams are at halftime the more likely they are to win. If your team is up by 4, chances are it will hold on for the victory (around a 70% chance).  If your team brings a 6 point lead into the locker-room then the chances of a win go up to 80 percent.  In fact, the relationship between halftime lead and likelihood of winning showed a strong linear trend. The greater the lead, the greater the likelihood. 

There was a significant discontinuity, however, as halftime scores moved closer to a tie. Teams down by a point actually had a higher winning percentage than teams up by a point. Halftime leads predicted winning except for when those leads were small – then they predicted losing.

To further test their hypothesis about small deficits increasing motivation the authors looked at how scores changed in the 3rd versus the 4th quarter of these games. They reasoned that if small halftime deficits were providing increased motivation then the effects of such motivation should be most visible in the minutes directly after the break. This is indeed what they found: being behind at halftime led to a significantly greater likelihood of scoring more points than opponents in the third quarter, but not the fourth. And if you think this pattern is a function of some phenomenon specific to the NBA, not so. The authors replicated their findings with the 45,529 NCAA basketball games played between 1999 and March 2009 as well.

These field studies tell a compelling story, but to demonstrate that the relationship between halftime deficits and winning can be accounted for by changes in individuals’ motivation, the authors conducted a laboratory study wherein they could manipulate halftime scores in a controlled competitive setting. Participants squared off against one another in a game of who can hit the “a” and “b” keys in succession as many times as possible in a minute. The game was broken down into two halves of 30 seconds each during which time participants were given feedback about their scores. They were then randomly assigned to conditions where they were either told that they were far behind, slightly behind, tied, slightly ahead, or received no feedback.

Competitive feedback increased effort (as indexed by the amount of key presses in the 2nd half) only in the condition where participants were slightly behind. Being far behind did not increase effort. In accordance with the principle of diminishing sensitivity, the farther away participants were from their goals the less they tried to achieve them.

Part of the explanation surely lies in the alluring proximity of a desired goal (a victory). When our goals seem achievable (i.e., we are slightly behind) we will be more motivated than if they are distant (far behind) or we’ve already achieved them (we are ahead). The influence of the proximity of our goals on motivation does not depend, however, on objective measures of relative performance, but instead a subjective assessment of achievement potential: Do individuals think they can win. The authors demonstrate this in a final study in which they show that the motivating effects of being behind are greater for individuals with higher perceived self-efficacy (i.e., beliefs that they can achieve the desired outcome). Being slightly behind won’t increase motivation if you think you’re not capable of turning things around. And, similarly, a large deficit might also be motivating if you think you’ve got what it takes to stage a glorious comeback.

It seems the key to motivation (in sports as well as in other domains of life) is to encourage people to see themselves as slightly behind others. Too far behind and you’ll extinguish the belief that an individual can surpass a competitor. Too much praise and they’ll sit on their laurels. Make them think the carrot is just in front of their nose.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.