Breaking Down the Psychology of Performance Attitudes: Win and Lose
“Above anything else, I hate to lose.”
Some people find the ruthless competitiveness expressed in this quote from Jackie Robinson to be appalling. Others find it refreshingly honest. In the world of elite sports, this hate-to-lose stance is far from an anomaly. Jimmy Connors, Michael Phelps, Derek Jeter and Larry Bird – to name just a few – are all on record expressing the very same sentiment.
Of course, winning and losing are opposite sides of the same coin. They cannot occur simultaneously. In order to avoid losing, you have to win. The desire not to lose can easily be framed as a desire to win – just the other side of the coin.
For many people, the win-loss coin is not balanced in terms of each side’s motivational force and emotional impact. Some compete primarily for the elation of winning, while others are driven more by the fact that they find losing to be completely intolerable.
This article takes a closer look at the psychology behind the love of winning and hatred of losing, in an attempt to see if promoting one of these two attitudes is more optimal for performance.
Approach and Avoidance
“A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning.”
-Billie Jean King
In a previous article on achievement orientation, I distinguished between performance-oriented individuals who think success means outperforming others, and mastery-oriented individuals who see success in terms of learning new skills.
Another useful dichotomy in achievement orientation involves the distinction between approach and avoidance motivation.
People with an approach motivational style are primarily interested in securing rewards and desirable outcomes (going to the gym to stay fit or to look good), whereas those with an avoidance motivational style mostly want to avoid punishment and undesirable outcomes (going to the gym to avoid criticism or heart disease).
The question of loving to win or hating to lose, then, can be thought of in terms of approach and avoidance motivation. Those in the love-to-win camp are approach-motivated, and the hate-to-lose folks are avoidance-motivated.
Most actions can be framed in terms of both approach and avoidance goals, and we all use both types of goals throughout our lives. However, if you have to choose one as a general tendency, is one motivational style better than the other? As we will see, it depends on what you actually mean by “better.”
“Losing feels worse than winning feels good.”
Vin Scully’s less-than-scientific observation, based on six decades of experience watching baseball from the broadcasting booth, turned out to reflect a fundamental truth about the human condition.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his groundbreaking work on human decision making, in which he demonstrated that humans have a powerful bias toward avoiding losses over acquiring similar gains (for example, thinking it is better not to lose $5 than to gain $5).
In some studies, the anticipated pain of losing has been shown to be about twice as motivating as the pleasure of gaining. This collective bias toward avoiding loss is one of the reasons that incentivization programs based on punishment and penalties tend to be more effective than reward-based strategies.
Despite being a great motivator, loss aversion is not without its downsides. For one, avoidance goals can be stressful, tending to be associated with negative emotions and hypervigilance to threat of loss. This can backfire when individuals adopt a defensive avoidance strategy, refusing to invest effort or altogether dodging tasks in which there is a chance of being evaluated poorly.
People who adopt an approach motivation tend to be more exploratory and risk tolerant, and report greater subjective well-being compared to people with avoidance motivation. For this reason, psychologists almost universally recommend approach over avoidance goals. However, as we all know, feeling better is not the same as performing better, and as Tiger Woods put it, “Winning takes care of everything.”
Whatever Happened to Doing Your Best?
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
-Coaches and parents everywhere
Perhaps it is better to avoid the win-loss trap altogether and simply focus on performing as well as you can. This is the basic idea behind the mastery orientation to achievement, which values self-improvement over competitive aspirations.
Initially, only the performance orientation (focused on wins and losses) was subdivided according to approach and avoidance motivational styles. Eventually researchers began to consider the possibility that mastery orientation (focused on learning) could also be split along similar lines, thereby creating a two-dimensional model of achievement orientation, with four distinct possibilities displayed in the 2×2 grid below:
Of the four possible combinations, mastery-approach appears to be associated with the most optimal set of psychological consequences (enhanced intrinsic motivation, reduced anxiety, positive emotions). This is the image of the internally-driven athlete striving for personal bests and peak performances. Strikingly, however, empirical data connecting mastery-approach goals with enhanced performance is lacking.
Mastery-avoidance is a bit of a mixed bag in that it is associated with both positive and negative psychological outcomes. While the focus on self-improvement avoids the anxiety associated with social comparison, obsessing about not making mistakes can become a source of uncomfortable anxiety that can impair performance. The picture here is of the perfectionistic athlete striving for flawlessness or the end-of-career athlete trying to stave off performance decline.
Performance-approach is also a psychological crapshoot. While the performance-based focus on winning and losing can bring ego-related anxieties and performance decrements into play, this orientation can actually be quite adaptive when there is a high degree of perceived competence and self-belief. In fact, performance-approach (aka love to win) is the only orientation to be consistently correlated with superior performance.
Performance-avoidance appears to be the most dysfunctional of all the orientations, exposing the athlete to anxiety both from social comparison and hypersensitivity to loss. Although hating to lose is not the most psychologically pleasing attitude, it is difficult to ignore the testimony of the numerous champions who attribute their success to an inability to tolerate losing.
“A champion is suppose to hate to lose, and it wasn’t like I was ever crazy about
the idea. But I learned to deal with losing without having my spirit or confidence broken, which would help immensely over time, not just in the big picture but even in specific matches when I found myself in a jam. Fear of losing is a terrible thing.”
So what are we to make of all this? If we want to improve performance, should we love to win or hate to lose? Should we just not care about winning and losing and focus on doing our best?
It depends on what your goals are and how much confidence you have in your ability.
If you care primarily about feeling good, experiencing flow, and deriving enjoyment from your chosen craft, it’s probably best to avoid the question altogether and adopt a mastery-approach orientation in which your primary focus is on learning and constant improvement.
However, even pursuit of mastery can be a double-edged sword that can quickly become both unenjoyable and detrimental to performance if a mastery-avoidance style blurs into perfectionism and an intolerance of mistakes.
If enhancing your performance is what you are after, and you believe in your ability, the research suggests that it is best to adopt a performance-approach style, or a love-to-win attitude, in which your primary motivation is outperforming others.
Finally we return to where we began – to those who, like Jackie Robinson, just can’t stand losing. Despite the fact that performance-avoidance is an unpleasant and socially isolating attitude (no one likes a poor loser), it is difficult to ignore the evidence that loss aversion is far more motivating than the thought of winning. What are we to make of all the champions who attribute their success to an inability to tolerate losing?
There are never any simple answers in the mental game.
So what do you say? Love to win, hate to lose, or just do your best?
With you in the pursuit,