Everyone knows someone who keeps racking up success after success. While talent, skill, and good old fashioned luck definitely play their part in those achievements, there’s also something much deeper going on. Whether you’re a stockbroker or a lab rat, winning once really does increase your chances of winning next time. In fact, all some people do is win-win-win, no matter what. That phenomenon is known as the winner effect.
Two mice enter one mice leaves
Biologists have long noticed that when animals in the wild fight for dominance, the animal that wins is more likely to win fights in the future. This isn’t just because they’re better in a fight. Scientists have found that just the act of winning is enough to boost the chances of success later on. This makes some logical sense: knowing you can win builds confidence, and confidence is an important tool for success.
Researchers theorized that this all came down to hormones. Winning leads to a boost of testosterone, they figured, and testosterone makes animals more aggressive. Losing, on the contrary, leads to a boost in the stress hormone cortisol, which makes animals more fearful and risk averse. But a 2017 study published in the journal Science points to something else.
A team led by Zhejiang University’s Hailan Hu suspected that a cluster of brain cells known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, or dmPFC, was the true cause of the so-called winner effect. The dmPFC plays an important role in persistence — a trait that a life coach might call “grit.” To test their theory, the researchers first put pairs of male mice into a narrow tube, facing each other. As that’s an obviously uncomfortable situation, each mouse would try to find a way to get out as quickly as possible, usually by fighting to shove the other out of his way.
The researchers took the loser mice, then used light to activate the dmPFC and put them back in the tubes with their rivals. With those neurons switched on, 80 to 90 percent of the previous losers bested their opponents.
But here’s the thing: the next day, when the researchers put the same mice back in the tubes without doing anything to their brains, the mice who won most recently kept on winning. Whatever effect the original loss had was erased by the subsequent win.
Previous research had pointed to a link between the thalamus, a sort of sensory signal relay in the brain, and the dmPFC in this kind of behavior, so the researchers tried activating that connection instead. Sure enough, it had the same winning effect. Importantly, these previously loser mice kept winning without any change in their testosterone levels, so that previous theory was probably incorrect.
When it rains it pours
While animal studies don’t always extend to humans, the possibility of this happening in our own brains is certainly intriguing. You can see the winner effect happen in humans, at any rate. In the book “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind”, John Coates cites a study looking at 623,000 pro tennis matches that found that the winner of the first set had a 60 percent chance of winning the second one — and since tennis is a best two out of three scenario, that means the entire game.
If the winner effect is real, then that’s good news and bad news. The good news is that winning is even better than you thought it was; the bad news is that losing is even worse. Maybe we can all use the extra motivation that comes from knowing that one win can lead to others to help us finally reach that first success.