In an analysis of chess and tennis matches, players rising in the rankings did better than expected against higher-ranked opponents and better than similarly ranked players who were not rising.
This July, just one year after turning pro, 15-year-old Coco Gauff beat tennis superstar Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon. She went on to win two more rounds against highly ranked players during the tournament. Similarly, in 2009 17-year-old Melanie Oudin beat a series of top-ranked opponents, making it to the fifth round of the U.S. Open.
How did these newcomers do so well? One factor—in addition to stellar play—could have been their meteoric rise in status both prior to and during the tournament. Opponents seeing the newbies’ names climb in the rankings might have been somewhat psyched out. It’s a phenomenon that Duke University researcher Hemant Kakkar calls “status momentum”:
“If that person is gaining momentum, you tend to feel more threatened or intimidated by their momentum. And as a result, your performance is impaired.”
Kakkar and his colleagues analyzed more than 100,000 matchups between tennis pros and millions of amateur chess games. They found that players fared worse when facing opponents who were rising in rank. And it’s not just that the rise in rank reflected higher skills.
“Our research shows that you will be more threatened by someone who has improved their ranking from 10 to eight to four than who was always at four. Even though the two players have objectively the same rank, you feel more threatened by the one who has risen in rank.”
Kakkar thinks status momentum may come into play wherever hierarchies are formed and disrupted—especially in the world of business. His team conducted several online experiments simulating real-world business scenarios to investigate the psychological mechanisms behind status momentum. They conclude that people expect that a competitor’s future rank will actually mirror physical laws of momentum—that is, an object in motion will continue to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force.
“When they see someone moving up in rank, they think that this person has momentum. And their first thought is, ‘Oh, this person is going to continue to move up.’ So these studies find that people tend to project opponents’ rank in future—who have momentum. And as a result, they feel threatened.”
The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Hemant Kakkar et al., The impact of dynamic status changes within competitive rank-ordered hierarchies]
The research also revealed that focusing on their own strengths buffered participants against their competitors’ status momentum. Another way to feel less threatened? Pretend that the competitors’ rise in rank is due to an error in the ratings system.
“Delusion plays a huge role in how we maintain our self-esteem. It helps make us feel good about ourselves.”
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]