Picture yourself in a competition—a triathlon, say, or a gamified sales contest. Early on, you’re in the lead and feeling confident, which seems to make you try even harder. You hold your frontrunner status into the late stages, but then your motivation flags, you begin to underperform, and you run the risk of losing.
That’s a common mental sequence for competitors of all sorts, according to new research by Szu-chi Huang, an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and her collaborators Jordan Etkin of Duke University and Liyin Jin of Fudan University. The work, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that in the early phase of competition, being in the lead boosts motivation by convincing the participant that winning is possible, while leading later in the contest actually decreases motivation by reducing the perceived amount of additional effort required to achieve victory.
“Sometimes being ahead boosts our motivation and performance and sometimes it actually hurts,” says Huang.
However, late-phase leaders can sustain their motivation if they focus not on their position as leaders but on some other high standard, such as their own strong performance in prior contests. That additional point of comparison often induces more effort.
The research is relevant to organizations that use competition as a way to motivate employees to work toward a goal, such as selling more products, reducing waste, or raising money for charity. Knowing when participants might become demotivated and how to reinvigorate them at that stage can help maximize their participation and output.
Early in a competition, Huang says, the novelty of the event and uncertainty about your opponents’ and your own abilities make you wonder if winning is even possible. So if you jump ahead early, it gives you a sense that winning is attainable and feeds motivation. But once participants stop fretting about attainability, they begin to calculate how much additional effort is needed to win.
“People who are leading underestimate the effort they need to invest, hence they relax prematurely,” Huang says.
In one of several studies, 136 participants each competed against one other opponent for a cash prize in a five-round competition. In each round, participants were asked to memorize lists of five colors and recall if they appeared in a subsequent list of colors. To measure whether winning appeared attainable and how much effort winning would require, participants in both early and late stages of the contest answered the questions “how difficult will it be for you to win?” on a 1 to 10 scale, and “how many more points do you think you need to earn in order to win?” in an open-ended text box.
The researchers measured motivation by tracking how much time participants spent memorizing the lists of colors. They found that in the early phase of the competition, participants who led their opponents and felt they could win spent more time memorizing colors. Later in the competition, those who believed they were ahead spent less time memorizing because they’d determined that winning would require less effort.
In an attempt to find ways to counteract such drops in late-stage motivation, the researchers performed a separate study in which they invited more than 2,500 students from two campuses of a public university to participate in a book-donation drive for the school library. Students at each location were told they were competing against the other campus. The one that donated the most used books would receive $500 to purchase new books.
To measure motivation during the six-day competition, the researchers tracked how many of the 2,500 students signed up to contribute and how many books they actually donated. On the fourth day of the contest, all of the students learned whether their campus was leading or trailing the other. Some students on the leading (and trailing) campus also received an extra notice informing them that “signups at our campus are still 10% lower than our best year.” The rest of the students didn’t receive the extra notice.
Motivation among the students at the leading campus who didn’t receive the late notice fell; their participation rate declined to 3.9% and they gave an average of 1.52 books per person. But those who did receive the notice contributed on average 2.8 books per person and had a participation rate of 8%.
“By focusing on another standard that’s higher than where you are, you’re able to sustain motivation,” says Huang.