When we daydream about being at the Olympics or the Academy Awards, we usually picture ourselves as the winners — standing there tearfully while we’re given a gold medal or golden statuette — and not as one of the stoic, stunned also-rans.
But maybe we should imagine ourselves as a runner-up. That’s because, according to Monica Wadhwa, marketing professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, “not winning is, in fact, more powerful than winning,”
She has spent nearly a decade researching this seemingly paradoxical idea, motivated by her childhood experiences. “When I was growing up in India, there was a time when I was addicted to lotteries,” says Wadhwa. What intrigued her were those moments in which she’d buy a ticket, get five out of six winning numbers, and find herself more fired up than ever to play again. She recalls, “I should have been giving up, but it was just the opposite.”
Well, the lottery-loving girl grew up to be a researcher, who was curious to see if this effect extended to others. Through a series of experiments, she has found that people who came close to winning gained greater motivation to succeed in their next efforts than either the winners or the clear losers.
In one experiment, participants played a cellphone game that had a grid of 16 tiles. Half of them covered diamonds; half, rocks. Clicking on a tile revealed a diamond or rock, and if they got eight diamonds without uncovering a rock, they’d win the game and receive a reward. After they played, participants were given a quick survey to evaluate how engaging the game was. They were told to bring their completed surveys to a booth down the corridor and that they’d get a thank-you gift (a chocolate bar) when they did. The researchers secretly recorded the speed of the subjects as they walked down the corridor to return the survey and receive the chocolate.
The near-winners — the people who got seven diamonds, just short of the needed eight — walked significantly faster than the winners and the clear losers. Wadhwa’s hypothesis for why this happened: “You have these non-winners [playing the game and] inching toward the reward. Their motivation is getting intensified, but then they miss it … So what happens to this motivation? It hooks on, gives you the energy for the next goal that you have.”
What about the winners? Wadhwa says, “The winners inch toward their goal, they achieve it, and their motivation is satisfied.” Which leaves them with no need for them to strive for anything else.
But Wadhwa warns, “You’ve got to use the fire in your belly wisely.” As she puts it, “You could use this motivation energy and apply it to that next big project you’re working on — or you could squander this away on another kind of reward, like a night out at a club.”
The results of another experiment by Wadhwa bear this out. She and researchers stationed themselves at a fashion-accessory store, where they gave shoppers scratch-off lottery tickets. If they scratched off six adjacent 8s, they’d get a $20 gift certificate. They were told to shop after they played; as they exited the store, they’d show their store receipt to the researchers and receive a small gift. The scratch cards were rigged so that participants ended up in one of three groups: losers (who got only three 8s), near-winners (five 8s) and winners (six 8s).
Their findings: The near-winners ended up shopping more — and spending more money — than the winners and losers. Wadhwa says, “Their activated energy moved on and hooked on to the shopping goal.
So how can we harness this unique energy in our own lives? Wadhwa says, “When you’re setting goals for yourself, set goals that are slightly beyond your reach.”
Wadhwa, who’s worked with companies to employ these insights, urges managers to try this with their employees. Set targets just outside their grasp but “not so hard that they get demoralized and quit.” She cautions, “You need to understand the capacity of your team members” to figure out the appropriate objective.
Wadhwa has another suggestion for managers: Stop focusing so much on star performers. Instead, tap into the “motivational juice” of non-star performers. For example, with a sales team, she says, “Compare the [non-star] salesperson with the next best performer, so they know they were so close to them … This thought can get their motivation flying.”
Parents can even use this with their children, according to Wadhwa. When kids lose — whether in sports or in school — point out to them how close they came to winning.
If we can learn to tap into this energy, we’ll find, as Wadhaw puts it, that “winners really do not take it all.”
Watch her TEDxINSEAD talk here:
Daniella Balarezo is a Media Fellow at TEDx. She is also a writer and comedian based in NYC.
This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.