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Human Instinct TV Programmes

Programme 3 - Will to Win

Wednesday 6 November 2002 9-10pm

We’re always competing, even when we least expect it. The will to win is an instinct that’s kept our species alive. In this programme we discover why coming out on top feels so great and why losing feels so bad.

Boxing match
Humans are biologically programmed to get a kick out of winning.

The Joy of Victory

For our ancient ancestors, beating the opposition was important. It meant they were more likely to survive and have children.

Those who got a kick out of winning were more successful and passed the desire for victory on to their children. So over generations our bodies have evolved to give us a feeling of euphoria when we win.

A Constant Battle

As young children we compete for the most useful resource available - our parents’ attention. At the University of Michigan, Brenda Volling asks parents to concentrate their attention on the older of two siblings. Immediately, the younger children try to force their way into the game.

If they fail to get noticed they release a powerful and effective weapon: the temper tantrum. This invariably gets them their parent's attention. But when the parent plays only with the younger child things are quite different.

The older sibling is far more likely to try to impress by following the rules, patiently waiting their turn, offering to help with the game, or even simply saying "I love you."

One study suggests this difference in strategies continues into later life. Frank Sulloway studied historical figures in science.

A male mouth and jaw
Larger, wider jaws and chins are one sign of a dominant face.

He found that first borns were far less likely to be radical thinkers then their younger brothers and sisters. Scientific revolutions such as Darwinism are far more likely to have been started, and supported, by people with at least one elder brother or sister.

Sizing up the Opposition

We don’t have the energy or resources to compete all the time, so we have evolved hierarchies to avoid this. We are much more likely to feel competitive with our friends and colleagues - people we feel on a par with - and therefore have a realistic chance of beating. But we don’t bother to battle with those people we feel are much superior, giving way to avoid a fight we would probably lose.

We also, unknowingly, send signals about ourselves. For men, one signal to their place in the hierarchy is in their faces. Larger, wider jaws and chins, and heavy-set brows, are the signs of a dominant face, while a submissive face looks more like that of a child.

Allan Mazur of Syracuse University and Ulrich Mueller of Marburg University put this theory to the test, by analysing the careers of the West Point Military Academy class of 1950. They found that those who made it into the top ranks of the army were also disproportionately those whose face rated highly for dominance.

And we also judge people on the way they act. Ellen Langer of Harvard University found that people will bet more money against an opponent who appears less confident and capable- even though the card game they played was completely dependent on chance.

Nick Leeson
Nick Leeson took bigger and bigger risks, until his deeds caught up with him.

The Agony of Defeat

Our bodies also drive us on to win by making losing feel terrible. And we are more likely to remember our losses- to help us try and avoid doing the same thing again. But losing is not just about feeling bad.

In a hierarchical world reputations are very important - even more important than not losing is not being seen to be a loser. Nick Leeson discovered this to his cost. He says his desire not to be unmasked as someone who had lost money led him on to take bigger and bigger risks- until his losses brought down Barings Bank.

But the most unusual thing about the way humans compete is that we are not just out for ourselves. We team up with others. And we experience the joy of winning and the agony of defeat just as vividly when watching our family, friends, or favourite team as if we were actually competing ourselves.

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