The underdog creams a top-ranked opponent—and the crowd goes wild. But such a surge in the face of the odds is even more difficult than it appears, according to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. If status is on the line, people try harder to win when they are pitted against lower-ranked opponents.
Psychologists Nathan Pettit of Cornell University and Robert Lount of Ohio State University asked Cornell students to perform simple tasks in teams—for instance, writing down as many possible uses for a knife as they could come up with. The researchers falsely told the students that they were competing against another university that was ranked higher or lower than Cornell—but they added that the tasks at hand were not indicative of academic performance, so the rankings should not predict which team would do better. When the students thought they were facing a lower-ranked school, they did better on the task.
“It could really be conservation of effort: I fight the battles that I can potentially win, but there are certain battles, no matter how hard I fight, I’m not going to win,” Pettit says.
The new study contradicts earlier research showing that when faced with a superior opponent in similar creative language tasks, people tend to work harder. But unlike the current study, which involved competition between ranked schools, the earlier studies did not involve a threat to the competitors’ preexisting real-world status. So another motivating factor for the students in the new study could be the fact that performing worse than people of lower rank can mean a loss of status, says psychologist Naomi Ellemers of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study.