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How Losing Can be a Winning Strategy

What doesn’t kill you really can make you stronger

Robert Roy Britt
Oct 16 · 5 min read

Friedrich Nietzsche is credited with first uttering the aphorism “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” You might hear Kelly Clarkson’s version in your head. Or Kanye or Kiss. Each of them, and at least 11 other musicians have borrowed and tweaked the line which, scientists now say, rings true, especially when people come heart-wrenchingly close to winning.

In the latest example, a study in the journal Nature Communications finds that failure early in a scientist’s career can lead to greater long-term success, as measured not by hit songs but by hit research papers.

The results offer lessons to losers and winners, the researchers say, and perhaps even to managers making hiring decisions based on glowing resumes that likely leave out key information about lessons learned. Other research suggests frustrating near-misses, or even being ever-so-slightly behind in a competition, athletic or otherwise, motivates people to try harder.

Science ‘hits’

In the new study, researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management analyzed records of more than 1,000 early-career scientists who applied for coveted financial grants from the National Institutes of Health between 1990 and 2005. They zeroed in on those who barely succeeded, with scores just above the threshold for acceptance, and those who missed getting grants by a whisker. In this narrow range, they figured, the proposals were of similar quality, and luck likely played a role in who got funded and who didn’t (as opposed to poor proposals by scientists who were perhaps always doomed to fail).

Then they counted up the research papers each scientist published over the next 10 years, and determined how many of those papers were “hits,” measured not by likes or hearts (or claps) but by citations from other scientists. Only the Top 5 most-cited papers were considered hits.

Mind you, the near missers had gotten devastating news, and no money, while the skin-of-their teeth grantees got on average $1.3 million to fund their work over the next five years.

Yet on average, the near-miss scientists published just as many papers in the decade after that first application, and they were 6.1% more likely to have a hit paper.

The disappointment of a failed grant application took a heavy toll on some, for sure: Career attrition was about 10% higher among those who narrowly lost out versus those who initially squeaked by, but “early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere,” the researchers conclude. “Overall,” they write, “these findings are consistent with the concept that ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”

The results offer a lesson for winners, too.

“Resist the temptation to rest on your proverbial laurels, because some of those you edged out will likely be nipping at your heels and moving to overtake you before long,” write study team members Dashun Wang and Benjamin Jones in a related article in Harvard Business Review. Employers would be wise to consider the findings, too, Wang and Jones write. “It’s important to recognize that resumes almost exclusively comprise successes, but failures could be just as, if not more valuable predictors for future performance.”

Beyond science

The researchers are now studying if losing might be a winning strategy in other realms beyond science, but as yet they don’t have any firm answers. However: “Our preliminary analyses on sports offer rather promising results,” Wang says.

“I think this is a very cool study,” says Selin Malkoc, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “The authors use a creative analysis to isolate the effect they are after — which they do really well.” Malkoc, who wasn’t involved in the research, said the findings are consistent with her own research showing that “the mistakes that hurt the most are the ones that are most likely to increase effort later on.”

But, her research shows, emotional reflection and perseverance are critical.

In one study, Malkoc and colleagues found that people who merely cogitate intellectually on a flub tend to focus on their egos and make excuses, while those who ponder the failure emotionally end up trying harder the next time. “If your thoughts are all about how to distance yourself from the failure, you’re not going to learn from your mistakes,” she says.

In experiments involving college students competing for cash prizes based on their ability to search and find the lowest prices on products, half were asked to think about their performance, then after losing, write about it. The other half were told to focus on thoughts and emotions around how they did, then write about it after learning they’d lost. (Unbeknownst to the students, the test was rigged: Everybody lost.) Then they all got a second chance.

Those who had dwelled on the emotional pain of losing spent 25% more time on the subsequent efforts, Malkoc’s team reported in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

“All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad,” Malkoc says. “But we found the opposite… When people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don’t want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time.”

The study measured effort only, not how each group ultimately performed. But in other unpublished work, Malkoc’s team analyzed data from Olympic silver medalists — classic near misses — and compared their later performance to gold and bronze medalists. “We had found that silver medalists outperform the rest, at least under some circumstances.”

The benefit of being behind

Like a narrow loss, being slightly behind can provide winning motivation, too.

In a classic study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 18,000 pro basketball games, finding that teams behind by just one point at halftime win more often than teams ahead by one, “or approximately six percentage points more often than expected,” Jonah Berger and Devin Pope concluded in a 2011 paper in the journal Marketing Science. Their analysis of college games yielded a similar result.

Being behind by a lot can be discouraging, the researchers noted, and the odds of big come-from-behind wins aren’t good.

The effect extends beyond sports, Berger and Pope found. In experiments similar to those done by Malkoc, people played a simple key-pressing game on a computer keyboard, with cash prizes for the winners. At a halftime break, the participants were told they were slightly ahead or slightly behind an unseen opponent. Both groups put in more effort in the second half, but those who were slightly behind worked the hardest.

“Being slightly behind increases effort,” Berger and Pope write, and “losing can sometimes lead to winning.”

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Robert Roy Britt

Written by

Explainer of things, former editor-in-chief of Live Science and Space .com, author of the science thriller “5 Days to Landfall.”

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