February 25, 2010

Underdogs Make Us Work Harder

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Groups of people work harder to prevent losing to an underdog than to prevail over a higher-status opponent, according to a Cornell research study. Nathan Petit grad co-authored the study with Prof. Robert Lount, management and human resources, the Ohio State University.

“We wanted to look at how the status of the outgroup impacts the amount of effort people put in,” Petit said, referring to the group that the experiment’s subjects were competing against. “The established idea is that when people are compared to another group, they end up working harder than if they were compared to members within the same group.”

For example, Cornell students are more likely to work harder in a competition if they are pitted against students from a school with a slightly lower status than they would against fellow Cornell students.

The research was conducted from early 2007 through 2008 at the Johnson School’s Business Simulation Lab and involved several hundred Cornell students.

The study focused on the question, “Would Cornell students work harder against higher or lower status groups?”

“We thought that they would work harder against higher status outgroups, but we found that it was actually the opposite,” Petit said.

Subsequent studies have tried to explore why this is true, Petit said. The studies have found that being compared to a slightly lower status outgroup increases a group’s competitiveness because they are expected to win. Failing to do so has negative social implications, while there is no real social damage when a group is expected to lose.

Petit noted that the study only used simple tasks, because that makes it easier to infer how much effort was used. These tasks included alphabetizing, coming up with ideas, and vowel cancellation exercises.

“These are a great measure of effort because everyone can do it,” Petit said. “For more complex analytical tasks, more effort does not always correlate to a better outcome.”

“One thing that I want to highlight is that these findings are probably specific to only slightly higher and slightly lower status outgroups,” he said. “We don’t know if it holds for a huge range in status. We also don’t know if it’s going to work for more difficult tasks.”

As for further research, Petit is not sure that he is going to continue to look into status.

There is a lot of existing research about losses versus gains, and much of it is on tangible things, like money. For example, studies have shown that people get much more upset when they lose five dollars, but only marginally happier when they receive five dollars.

“This is the most interesting part,” Petit said. “People work harder to avoid losing status and not as hard to gain.”

Original Author: Laura Shepard