90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
The Science Of Winning And Losing

With Jane Clayson in for Tom Ashbrook.

We examine the science of winning and losing. Why a lucky few are top dogs and the rest of us aren’t.



When the stakes are high, when it’s all on the line, some people rise to the occasion.  They savor the challenge.  The thrill of competition.  They want, badly, to win.  While others feel dread.  Their hands go cold.  They begin to sweat.

Bestselling authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have looked at the research of what happens to us when we compete.  They’ve found that some people are wired to be warriors.  Others, to be worriers.   That women are wired differently than men.  That positive thinking – like imagining yourself taking the victory lap – makes you less likely to succeed.

This hour, On Point: we look at the science of winning and losing.


Po Bronson, co-author of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.” Co-founder of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. (@pobronson)

Ashley Merryman, co-author of “Top Dog,” attorney and former speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. (@ashleymerryman)

From the Reading List

The Onion A.V. Club “A competitor’s testosterone level before a chess game can predict whether he’ll win. A ballroom dancer who has competed for years can still have the same anxiety levels found in someone skydiving for the first time. Job hunters who spend a lot of time visualizing their dream job are more likely to still be unemployed six months later. These are some of the surprising findings uncovered by researchers around the world and gathered by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Top Dog: The Science Of Winning And Losing.”

The Wall Street Journal “When Americans visit Japanese schools, or invite Japanese children to play with their own children, they often set up the quintessential competitive American game of musical chairs. And invariably they are shocked to observe that Japanese children hate this game. They cry. They won’t play. They offer their last chance at a chair to ¬another. Exclude a child in each round? What sort of horrible game is that?”

Forbes “The last few years, it’s become the conventional wisdom that the secret to success is accumulating ten years’ worth of deliberate, effortful practice. Practice what makes you an expert. We felt there was something missing from that formula. We are not judged on how we practice. We’re judged on how we perform, under pressure, when it counts. We need competitive fire. Ashley and I wanted to know – what makes someone have that?”

Excerpt: “Top Dog”

From the book TOP DOG: The Science of Winning and Losing. Copyright (c) 2013 by Pro Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Mike_Card

    Rand Paul is a moron.

    • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

      Just because he up sets you, would be enough to make him a hero in my eyes.    

      • Mike_Card

        I don’t get upset by morons; if your heroes are morons, you’re entitled to make your own choices.

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

          I don’t recall asking your aproval.  

          • Mike_Card

            I don’t recall approving of whatever it is you are talking about.

    • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

      From Glen Reynolds:
      The best part was when Rand Paul sought unanimous consent for a sense of the Senate resolution that the President shouldn’t kill American citizens in America — and Democrats, led by Dick Durbin, objected.

      • jimino

        “the President shouldn’t kill American citizens in America”

        So if the 9-11 hijackers were American citizens your principles would preclude having the president direct them being killed?  Or would you be fine with that as long as it was a high school educated 19 year old who doesn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq who decided who gets killed and does the job?

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

          So you would have supported President Bush using a death squad to take out the Lackawanna Six. Interesting.
          Personally I stand against extrajudicial killings and with the established laws of our nation.

          • jimino

            Of course your example did not present an imminent physical threat, even in the eyes of those who investigated and prosecuted them.  If they had been, literally anyone could have used deadly force to stop them.  Why would you specifically exclude the President?

          • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

            Of course your example did present an imminent physical threat, but no target.  If there had been, literally anyone could have used deadly force to stop them, like the passengers on the planes in question. So you make a specious argument.  I specifically exclude the President as short hand for the entire Federal government.  As in:

            No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. 

          • jimino

            But if you accept that we are “at war” on terror, an enemy in which nobody will ever be “in actual service”, where does that lead us and what powers does that give the government?  THAT is the real issue.

            And of course Americans acting on behalf of the state kill other Americans every day without prior due process.  My only point is that Rand Paul’s demand for an answer to his question is a stunt without basis in any real or useful principle.

          • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

            We are seemingly in agreement that the GWOT is a massive over reach.  That ambiguous legislation should be repealed and replaced with more carefully written and specifically targeted declaration.  (My wish list in this area is quite long and must wait for another time.)

            But you are painfully wrong about Sen. Paul’s question and the administration’s lack of appropriate response.  If we are a nation of laws, and if our president respects that tradition, then the only possible answer is “No.”  But if the executive branch believes itself to be superior to all others then we get the poor response that AG Holder delivered.  

      • StilllHere

        Conclusion: Dick Durbin hates Americans.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

        Rand Paul’s stunt wasn’t aimed at substantive issues.

        The crisis11!!1one! is about his concern over the idea that some day this may result inkilling of Americans on American soil.

        It takes a lot of freakout fantasy to have that happen. (Of course, when Paul has the right-wing fluffers obliging him, and our mainstream press is helpless to actually cover this rather than just repeat it, it gets whipped up pretty easy.)

        Let’s grant Paul his fantasy that the CIA would kill Americans on American soil (versus the reality of them having killed Americans overseas). The time to protest that is when the defense and intelligence appropriation bills come to the floor.

        I’ll hold my breath while Rand Paul grandstands about it then. We’ll see if he gives a crap when it comes time to filibuster the money.

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

          We shall see.

        • Thinkin5

           I think that the fear that Rand Paul and others in his camp have is that when the NRA/militia attack and try to overthrow the government that the people elected, the drones will have an advantage over the homegrown terrorists with their guns. Those groups are amassing weapons and revving up their hate talk. They are spoiling for a fight. It’s what they live for. Why have all those guns if you can’t shoot at people?!

    • brettearle

      Couldn’t have said it better, myself….

      On second thought, would you consider replacing `moron’, with, ‘Gremlin’?

  • TrueAdventure

    Need to include:
       Malcolm Gladwell
    Author of “Outliers”

  • TrueAdventure

    Need to include:
       Malcolm Gladwell
    Author of “Outliers”

    PS. When will Tom be back? (Don’t care for guest host Robin at all.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

      Are you confusing Robin Young with Jane Clayson?

      Robin is the host of Here and Now, and she is my favorite of all the WBUR hosts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

    Do what you fear
    Watch it disappear

    There are several interesting neuro-juices that can surge when one is in a state of fear.  They variously trigger the Fight/Flight/Freeze responses.

    Most people know about Adrenaline rushes.  But how many people know about Gastrin and Bombesin?

    Gastrin is what gives you “butterflies in the stomach” while Bombesin is what makes your skin crawl when you are creeped out.

    I like to think of “Gastrin Bombesin” as the perfect name for an evil villain, like Oil Can Harry or Snidely Whiplash.

    See also The Phreaking Spectrum.

  • Gregg Smith

    There cannot be winners if there are no losers. 

    • brettearle

      [Partially] translated…..

      There should be failing grades for all public school students?

      [I may be a Liberal Democrat, nut I'm inclined to agree that there should be failing grades.]

      • Gregg Smith

        I don’t get it.

        • brettearle

           The politically correct nature–at least, at one time–of some school systems called for no failing grades, so that students wouldn’t feel like they are Losers.

      • Don_B1

        At school, while competition is often viewed as being the best, the real competition is against the material being studied, the level of understanding of that material and then the development of the ability to use the material creatively.

        The last ability, creative use, is what distinguishes individuals, but the understanding of the material can be gained by all.

        But the development of an ethic of hard work is critical for success in life. Easy success early in life can get an individual into a “skate-by” mentality that does not work well in later life when bigger challenges come.

        • brettearle

          What you wrote was quite articulate–and yet I couldn’t help but think that you may have missed my point–unless I missed yours…which I might have:

          The idea of below average, or even failing grades, MUST be essential–if you are going to assess standards and proficiency.

          Proficency can include a student’s own ability to use his/her creative potential, in addition to scholastic achievement.

          It seems to me that it is up to the curricula to challenge students to work to the best of their abilities.

          If these students can’t or won’t, then they must confront the realities.  Otherwise, they will lose greater opportunities to adjust and compensate–right then and there and in the Future.

          Why is that so hard to understand?

    • ToyYoda

      You’re assuming zero-sum games, and that’s not always the case, and in real life, it’s the exception.

      • Gregg Smith

        I get the concept, for instance if the rich get richer it does not mean the poor get poorer but a competition has winners and losers.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

          The real problem arises when one participant in a game of cooperation erroneously believes it needs to be played as a game of competition.

          That’s a recipe for tragedy, where the actual outcome is that everybody loses.

          See Nash Rambler for a meditation on this conundrum.

      • Gordon Green

        I agree, we tend to form mental models based on competition, but in the real world mutualism and symbiosis are quite widespread if not dominant.  In those systems, there can be many winners with no losers.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    The real winners are the ones on the sidelines promoting competition and selling what people “have to have” to be winners.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    there two most amplified events i recall from the losing end:
    1. Donnie Moore served a bad pitch and Dave Henderson hit a homer.. RedSox came back to win the series. After that event and after a few years into retirement… Donnie committed suicide

    2. Bill Buckner misplaced his glove to field a grounder… the dreaded Mets won the game and won the series afterwards… Buckner was forced to leave new england and live in the wilderness away from the limelight. Due to the incident… it tarnished his otherwise brilliant career where he nearly hit for 3000 hits. (i was so heartbroken as a teenager in 86 growing up watching the sox lose in the series).

    but none of these losers deserve what they got… especially Donnie Moore.. 

    I question the American culture when it comes to winning at all cost, especially the use of steroids. 

    the bottom line.. THESE PEOPLE ARE ENTERTAINERS, not role models. I dislike fanaticism in sports.

  • Fiscally_Responsible

    I think that in some case, losing is wonderful.  Especially when it is Notre Dame getting thrashed like they did in the game against Alabama!  My favorite team is whoever is playing Notre Dame!

  • ToyYoda

    OT: Is Tom Ashbrook on vacation?

    • TheDailyBuzzherd

      Who took more vacations? Obama, Bush, or Tom?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

    Back when WBUR filled this time slot with The Connection hosted by Christopher Lydon, I applied a classical model of competition and conflict to the style of competitive debate that is often heard on talk radio.  The model of competition I was working from comes to us from René Girard, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.  

    Here is my adaptation of Girard’s Model of Competition to conversations such as those occasionally heard on these channels:

    Cogitating About Communication in Our Connectedness

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    I have observed that those who initiate competition are far more keen on winning than those who are forced to compete against their will. The American culture does enforce competition on everybody, as a general rule, even those who hate conflict & dislike entanglement in other people’s wars. Stress kills, that’s true. Stress kills those who are unwilling to fight, first. Hence, the instinct to “fly”, instead. Flight is not cowardly behavior in the face of insurmountable & opposing force. Courage is getting out of unfair & aggressive environments when those situations do not suit peace-loving folks.

  • InActionMan

    The authors may want to find different terms than “Warrior” and “Worrier”. It may work in print but, the two terms sound very similar on the radio and are difficult to tell apart.

  • http://twitter.com/KseniaL Ksenia

    Great show, except I have no idea when you’re saying worrier or warrior. ESL problems. I guess I’ll have to read the book.

    • kendall_r

      It’s not even an esl problem … the words are indistinguishable in standard american english, and the pronunciation must be distorted even for native speakers to hear the difference.

      • TELew

        No, the words are indistinguishable because of how the guests pronounced them.  I pronounce the “wo” in “worry” like “word,” while “warrior” is more like “wa” in “water.”

  • TheDailyBuzzherd

    It’s a winner-take-all economy, folks, not pure capitalism at all. Stand and Be Mounted.

  • Gordon Green

    I think it might be advisable to use a synonym for one of the terms, worrier and warrior.  They are not easy to distinguish and the effect is kind of comical, like the 30 Rock episode about the new TV show, “The Rural Juror”, and its sequel, “Urban Fervor”.

  • Joe_Birdbath

    I’d worry about whoever selected that Kenny Loggins music!

  • leighlan

    Please, this is fascinating, but Icannot differentiate between Warrior and Worrier as said on radio to the point that the conversation sounds absurd. Please come up w/ some alternatives with which to continue the conversation!

  • ToyYoda

    There’s another book called ‘Choke’ by Beilock.  It came out a few years ago.  It talks about the same thing.

    Turns out that the smarter you are (relatively) the more likely you are to choke.  The reasons are not so simple but fascinating.  

    Smarter ‘competitor’ have larger working memory and can rely on relatively more complex reasoning/calculations which allows them to perform better in calm situations.  In a stressful situation, working memory of the smarter competitor takes more of a penalty, yet they still use more complex methods to perform.  The dumber person takes a working memory hit too in stressul situations, but is more practiced in using simpler ‘rules of thumb’ to perform.

    In other words, be mindful when you need to switch between thoughtful and instinctual modes.

  • Lauren Dahlin

    Are there people who are both competitive and anxious?

  • ToyYoda

    What if your ring and index fingers are even in length?

  • http://www.facebook.com/joanne.beck.18 Joanne Beck

    Worrying can impede the ability to perform.  It becomes the piece that creates performance axiety.  It also has to do with the ability to focus completely without that worrying sneaking in.

  • bs0607

    It is amusing that I had the same observation as InActionMan about the confusing sounds of “worrier” and “warrior”  - I did not know there would be another word nerd out there who felt moved to write a post.  Jane is working hard to distinguish between the pronunciations of warrior and worrier, but the two authors are lip lazy and unaware of how confusing and annoying their clever alliteration is to the listeners.  I find myself so irritated by their imprecision that I am now convinced the authors have drawn pop-science bestseller  misinterpretations from basic scientific research, and I am losing interest in what had seemed a worthwhile topic.

    • Beth Vance

       I agree about the sound of the broadcast. The words “worrier” and “warrior” sounded identical as pronounced, and I was going crazy trying to keep the two separate and so was frustrated by the broadcast.

      I’m sure it is an interesting topic on paper but I’ll not keep trying to listen anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    There is a large range of human behavior between the 2 poles of “warring” & “worrying”. Please ask your experts to address coping strategies. That’s how most people survive in a dog-eat-dog culture, after all.

  • ToyYoda

    There are people who don’t feel fear, because their connection to their amygdala is compromised or because they are psychopaths.  How do they fair in competition?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      This is a great question. Psychopaths are often cowards who love to gain control of others by the manipulation of violence (or, the threat of violence) yet don’t like to get their own hands bloody.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Greed leads to ambition, ambition to exploitation, and exploitation to regression. “Winners” back lose, lose scenarios everyday.

  • Donald Perley

    IF warrior types perform best in crisis, do they tend to ATTRACT crisis situations to the detriment of

  • Donald Perley

    IF warrior types perform best in crisis, do they tend to ATTRACT crisis situations to the detriment of

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      I believe they CREATE competition rather than attract it. Baiting others into petty battles is a good way to start a real, long-lasting vendetta.  

  • Steve_the_Repoman


    There is one top dog and he/she can be dethroned.
    The iconoclast is often starving on the outskirts.
    The pack has a role to play.

    Team sports:

    competitive warriors have a role but do not get far w/o the team.

    Game of Thrones:

    who survives – the moral warrior or the manipulative orchestrator pulling the strings behind the scenes.

    US economy:

    Are those that rise the top more gifted or competitive and if so why do they seek to fix the game?

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I don’t know about competition but like the last caller, my 2 daughters are the same as her sons – opposites.

    The younger will wait until the last minute to do EVERYTHING and “good enough is good enough” so we have to kick her backside to achieve what she is CAPABLE of achieving. 

    The older will work her tail off because perfect MIGHT be “good enough”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    This segment brings to mind a movie called “The Duelists”. In that film, the instigator of the competiton (Harvey Keitel) would not be satisfied, defeat after defeat. The hero (Keith Carradine) kept trying to shake Harvey off but- like a dog with a bone- a fight to the death was all Harvey wanted. See the film again. There’s a moral tale in it.

    • Steve_the_Repoman

      “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith and Gene Hackman.

      Sometimes it is better to dive under the table.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    And the “Worst collection of music during an hour of On Point” award goes to…

    • J__o__h__n

      Worriers write better songs if the ones chosen today are examples of warrior songs.  Or at least they did during the 80s. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

    Worrier, Warrior, or Thinker?

    I define “worrying” as an emotional form of information processing which fails to reduce the entropy or uncertainty of a knowledge base, fails to generate solutions to outstanding problems, or fails to conceive goal-oriented courses of action.

    Conversely, I define “thinking” as a rational form of information processing which reduces the entropy or uncertainty of a knowledge base, generates solutions to outstanding problems, and conceives goal-oriented courses of action.

    See The Calculus of Ideas.

  • http://twitter.com/ChiefExecMom Theresa Sullivan

    Making the distinction between worrier and warrior does not work on the radio!

    • J__o__h__n

      They should have warried about that when they wrote the book.

  • Mike H. Miller

    I remember in Slaughterhouse-Five when Vonnegut says there’s actually 7 human sexes, 5 of which are only observable in the 4th dimension.  This makes me think of that!

  • http://twitter.com/allen2saint allen 2saint

    You rock, Jane. 

  • Trittydi

    Is there a way to hear this broadcast?  I missed the last third – and – I would love for someone I know to hear it too.

    • Regular_Listener

       Click the red arrow above

  • J__o__h__n

    How long before you can surgically extend the length of your ring finger?

  • JosephPratt


  • Regular_Listener

    Can you really boil success/winning down to some genetic traits and experiences?  I highly doubt it.  The whole subject is very complex, starting with how you would define success or victory in the first place.  One person’s pinnacle could be another’s nightmare.  And don’t forget the importance of random factors.  It would be nice to think that there is an easily definable science of winning, and that we could all raise our kids to be the next Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg – except that such a thing could never happen.  And today’s hero sometimes turns out to be tomorrow’s loser, and vice-versa.  Ultimately success amounts to what degree one has been able to build a fulfilling life.

  • ExcellentNews

    I don’t see what is so surprising about the ballroom dancing findings. I would rather do a parachute jump anytime, and so would probably 90% of other guys too…

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.cogswell John M Cogswell Jr

    Worrier and Warrior.  What a LOUSY choice of words for two disparate characteristics.  Couldn’t the guests have chosen any other words???  Positively dreadful.

Sep 2, 2014
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks with Mark Wilson, event political speaker chairperson, with his wife Elain Chao, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, August 4, 2012. (AP)

Nine weeks counting now to the midterm elections. We’ll look at the key races and the stakes.

Sep 2, 2014
Confederate spymaster Rose O'Neal Greenhow, pictured with her daughter "Little" Rose in Washington, D.C.'s Old Capitol Prison in 1862. (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

True stories of daring women during the Civil War. Best-selling author Karen Abbott shares their exploits in a new book: “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.”

Sep 1, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) recovers a fumble by Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) in the second quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP)

One outspoken fan’s reluctant manifesto against football, and the big push to reform the game.

Sep 1, 2014
This Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 photo shows a mural in in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago dedicated to the history of the Pullman railcar company and the significance for its place in revolutionizing the railroad industry and its contributions to the African-American labor movement. (AP)

On Labor Day, we’ll check in on the American labor force, with labor activist Van Jones, and more.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: August 29, 2014
Friday, Aug 29, 2014

On hypothetical questions, Beyoncé and the unending flow of social media.

More »
Drew Bledsoe Is Scoring Touchdowns (In The Vineyards)
Thursday, Aug 28, 2014

Football great — and vineyard owner — Drew Bledsoe talks wine, onions and the weird way they intersect sometimes in Walla Walla, Washington.

More »
Poutine Whoppers? Why Burger King Is Bailing Out For Canada
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

Why is Burger King buying a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain? (We’ll give you a hint: tax rates).

More »
1 Comment