If you want to be a winner, you may have to lose a few times.
According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, “near misses,” such as losing on the last-second shot, or missing a winning lottery number by one digit, actually boost our motivation to win.
“While we often think of motivation as being targeted to a specific reward or goal, these findings support the notion that motivation is like energy and reward is like direction — once this motivational energy is activated, it leads an individual to seek out a broad range of goals and rewards,” says researcher Monica Wadhwa in a press release about the study.
When we lose by a little — an outcome the researchers called the “near win effect” — our motivation intensifies and drives us to succeed at the next task or goal even if it’s unrelated to the first one that we narrowly missed.
I’ve felt this on the golf course. When I miss the putt by half an inch, I can’t wait to get to the next hole and try again. When I’m having an off day and miss fairways and putts all along, I tend to feel more frustrated and weary and less motivated to keep going.
At work, a rejection that comes with an “I’d love to see more ideas” comment is always easier to swallow than a “No” or “This isn’t right for us.” The close-but-not-yet sense makes me feel hopeful and motivated to try again.
In their experiment, Wadhwa and a colleague had students play a mobile phone game. Participants were to click on tiles in a grid which covered images of diamonds and rocks. The goal was to uncover eight diamonds without finding the rocks. Students who played would receive a chocolate bar at the end of the game.
As part of the experiment, the game was tweaked so that one group of students would come close to victory, uncovering seven diamonds before hitting a rock. Another group uncovered the rock on the second try.
At the conclusion of the game, those students who lost the game on the last tile were timed walking to their candy bar reward at the end of the hall. They moved about 12 seconds faster than those who lost on the second tile. The researchers said that the findings indicated a near win may provide a stronger motivational boost than an actual win.
This knowledge could be used to motivate salespeople by highlighting the performance of another individual who is only slightly better, or designing promotions that give customers a near win and inspiring more sales, Wadhwa said.
In another experiment, the researchers had shoppers scratch off lottery tickets. Those who had near wins spent more money in the store next door than those who were clear winners or losers.
This research could blunt the sting of failure next time we’re on the losing end. If we come close to winning, after all, we can count on our intrinsic drive to help propel us toward success the next time around.
Wadhwa, M., & JeeHye, C.K. (2015). Can a Near Win Kindle Motivation? The Impact of Nearly Winning on Motivation for Unrelated Rewards. Psychological Science 26(6)701-708. doi: 10.1177/0956797614568681
Second place ribbon photo available from Shutterstock