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How Competition Affects Your Brain

Health Psychology
How Competition Affects Your Brain


  • Why men are more likely to compete than women
  • Why “Don’t get angry” can be bad advice
  • Why the true value of competition has nothing to do with victory

Ashley Merryman is the co-author of the two New York Times bestsellers NurtureShock, one of the most influential books about children ever published, and Top Dog, which blends science and storytelling to examine elite performance across business, sports, and academia. Michael Gervais recently hosted her on the Finding Mastery podcast to discuss the surprising neuroscience and psychology behind competition, cooperation, and conquering challenges head-on.

Michael: Do you value risk-taking?

Ashley: Absolutely. I’m in awe of people who are better at it than I am, which isn’t too hard. People who really take risks all the time I think are awesome.

Michael: It is wonderful, isn’t it? There’s a balance between neurochemistry and genetic coding, as well as a skill.

Ashley: And gender.

Michael: It’s wild that there’s a gender difference. When I first came across that, I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Ashley: Po Bronson and I were going to write this book about competition and he asked, “Hey, do you think we should write about gender differences?” I immediately said, “No.” I didn’t want people to hold up [Top Dog] and say, “The reason more women aren’t in office is because they can’t compete.”

When we were writing NutureShock, we came across gender differences pretty regularly in the data, but they were just such small differences that I thought they’d be a distraction. [But then] we found the research of Muriel Niederle at Stanford, who asked men and women in the lab, “Do you want to compete or not?” 70% of the guys said “Game on.” 30% of the women said yes.

That’s a 40% [difference]. That’s not just some random deviation. People talked about her work before, but I think they got it wrong because they said, “Well, women can’t compete. Women don’t want to compete.” What we realized from her work is that women are really good at calculating their odds of success, and men are really good at ignoring them.

Women just refuse to participate if they don’t think they’re going to win. Guys just go, “Yeah, I think I got this,” and they jump in. For me personally, I’ve been trying to be less concerned with the outcome, more willing to take risks and think, “What am I going to learn from this experience?” If I’m going to learn something, the fact that I’m not actually successful in the task can be irrelevant. I’ve just got to focus on what I can learn.

Michael: There’s an entire social construct around the word “competition.” The American idea is to compete against, to work against another unit. [But] if we look at the original definition of “competition,” it’s about cooperation. “Let’s thrive together. Let’s figure something out together. Let’s embrace and love the people on the other side.” I wonder if you can bounce off that a little bit.

“Women are really good at calculating their odds of success, and men are really good at ignoring them.”

Ashley: It’s a false choice between competition and cooperation. You and I can work together on a project, but want to beat the other guys who are working on their project. If you and I are competing against each other, but we’ve agreed on a forum and a conduct of behavior, we’ve still cooperated because we’re laying out those ground rules. I just think it’s false when people talk about, “It’s a dog eat dog world,” or “We’re all singing Kumbaya.” Neither of those is true.

Michael: If we go down into the game theory and the logic around that, most competitions are zero-sum games, meaning the winner takes all. War is the ultimate winner-take-all, because it’s land and life that are on the line. But for games like football, basketball, and baseball, where we’re agreeing on the construct, it’s not winner-take-all.

Ashley: Yeah, the benefit of competition isn’t the win. The benefit of competition is improvement.

We opened Top Dog with this description of Jason Lezak in the Beijing Olympics, and his famous come-from-behind victory so that the Americans could win the relay, and Michael Phelps beating Mark Spitz’s record. All of that is awesome and Jason is amazing, but five of the eight teams beat the world record that day.

They didn’t all go home with a [new] world record, but they all did something no one in the world had done before. The fact that other people were doing it at the same time doesn’t take away from their achievement. If anything, the next time they get in the pool, their expectation of what is possible has changed.

In the moment, competition improves your performance because if you see what someone else does, it’s not about tearing them down, it’s about saying, “Is there more I can do that I didn’t even realize?”

Then competition improves over time, because with practice you start realizing, “Oh, I get tired at this point,” or “This kind of thing frustrates me,” or “I’m better in this kind of circumstance, and how do I prepare for it?” It’s both in the moment, and competing over time. They both give you that improvement.

My favorite example of that is Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. When Phelps announced his retirement, people asked Ryan, “What do you think?” I guess they were expecting, “Well, more medals for me!” But instead he was like, “I don’t buy it. He’s going to come back. He makes me swim better.” Phelps came back, and at the first competition, one of them won. They were both like, “What’s this rivalry? He makes me swim better.”

Underwater shot of swimmer training in the pool

If you’re getting a team of stars together though, that’s a different challenge. Putting a bunch of experts in a room, they’re going to start throwing knives at each other pretty quickly. But if you give them a purpose, if you give them a structure and a mission, then they end up doing spectacular things. They need that guidance and that singular vision, especially if you’ve got really talented people, because they already have a vision that they’re bringing in.

Michael: When people can hook into something that’s bigger, it gives them a reason to rely on and trust other people to do something together.

Ashley: Right. Because if you’re an elite athlete, if you’re terrific at throwing the football, you could throw it down the field as far as you can, but there’s no one to catch it. You can do more on a team. If you want to throw things by yourself, there’s this sport called javelin throwing, and no one needs you to catch it. If you want to do more, then the team environment is where you need to go. You have to explain to people that that context and the communal effort is going to get them more than they would get on their own.

Michael: Yeah, there you go.

Why compete? Why is competition important?

Ashley: We’re social animals. That’s what we do. We think about, “How am I doing compared to my sister, or my friend?” The best competitors pick and choose when they’re going to compete. The best Olympian goes in and says, “I am going to work really hard to be successful, and I will crush my opponents.” But he doesn’t have that same approach to getting a parking space at the mall.

Michael: They have control. They can toggle it up and down when they need to.

Ashley: Great competitors understand when it’s not important. Another part is that a great competitor understands it can take a really long time to get good at something.

Michael: A very long time. This is why I think it’s hard for the talented to stay the journey, because it was easy for them. They’re always the tallest, the strongest, the biggest at a young age. It’s really difficult for them to stay the path of mastery. Sometimes they don’t have that fire and that competitive drive to get better.

Can you explain some of the neurotransmitters that are important for competition?

Ashley: Yes. I was having a conversation with UC Berkeley neuroscientist Silvia Bunge. She was saying that motivation is expressed in the brain with the transmission of dopamine. I was confused because my understanding was that you get dopamine when you achieve your goal, that dopamine was the reward, but Sylvia was saying that dopamine is what you get in motivation. Then I realized that motivation is the goal.

When I’m planning something, even when it comes off the way I wanted it to, there’s normally a letdown. What was missing? What I realized from talking to Sylvia was that the dopamine from getting the success pales in comparison to the dopamine I had during the process, during the motivation to do it.

Humans are not built to do something and then say, “We’re done.” The point of our physiology is to literally give us the physical and mental capability, once we do one goal, to achieve the next goal. Your hit of dopamine from being successful is not your victory lap, it’s to help you find the next goal.

Runner crossing finishing line on track

You can say that dopamine is the neurotransmitter version of motivation, and that testosterone is the hormonal version of it. You get a boost of testosterone when you win not because, “I’m awesome,” but because you’re getting ready to do the next challenge. You get a bigger testosterone boost from a near win, because it’s the guy who just lost who said, “No, no. Rematch.” It’s that biochemical preparation to get us to continue on. Motivation really is the goal.

Michael: I love it. Because the path, in and of itself, is the virtue. The path of growing is the path worth going on.

I think the challenge and threat piece is so good. Let’s dive into that.

Ashley: A challenge is when you have the resources, skills, and ability to succeed. That doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed. It could work, it might not, but you have a meaningful chance. A threat is when you don’t have the resources, skills, and ability to succeed and the main question is, “How badly is this going to go?”

What’s amazing is these two different perspectives, the psychology of challenge and threat, trigger different physiological responses. I can’t overestimate how significant they are. Jeremy Jamieson did an experiment with chronically anxious people. They were asked to give a speech about their lives, dreams, and hopes, and people were insulting them.

The difference between going into that speech feeling excited and feeling nervous, a challenge or a threat, was an additional two liters of blood pumping out of their hearts above baseline per minute. Two liters.

In a challenge state, your heart rate variability improves. Your blood vessels all dilate, you burn stored glucose, you get an increase in testosterone, you get a depression in cortisol, you get increases in adrenaline versus noradrenaline.

In a threat state, your heart rate variability drops. Your heart rate goes up, but you have vasoconstriction, so you’ve got all this blood rushing out of your heart, but it doesn’t have anywhere to go. Your fingers start getting tingly and numb. You get a burst of energy because you burn circulating glucose, not stored glucose.

“The benefit of competition isn’t the win. The benefit of competition is improvement.”

Researchers at the University of Washington did a great study asking the question, “What stuff makes the elite?” They do a shooting simulation with professional police officers who have had at least 10 years on the force. They know how guns work, they know how shooting simulations work. In theory, they should be at [max performance levels].

[But some were] thinking, “Are you scoring me based on how many targets I hit or how many targets I missed? Are you scoring me based on what I did compared to someone else?” Those kinds of questions, and the psychological and physiological triggering, accounted for 73% of the variance between the two performances.

Michael: My thoughts impact my physiology, and my physiology impacts my psychology. It’s that interaction between both that’s really important, and the mentally disciplined can do some sort of intervention [if necessary]. Breathing happens to be one of the more potent ones to do.

Ashley: My favorite example of that is a study of special forces and elite athletes. The comparison group were people prone to panic attacks. I call them panickers. All of them are naturally sensitive to changes in their heart rate. The special forces and the elite athletes said, “My heart rate is going up. Is that appropriate given what I’m about to do? Is there something in my environment that I need to change?” The panickers went, “My heart is going up. I’m going to have a panic attack.” Then they do.

The elite athletes and special forces guys are saying the physiology is a diagnostic tool, showing me there’s something I need to address. Whereas for the panickers, it was the diagnosis. Once their heart rate goes up, they’re on that train, and they can’t stop it.

I now try and look at them both ways. I understand that if I’m nervous about something, I’m stressed and I’m feeling those physiological symptoms. Metabolically, it’s going to take about 45 minutes for my testosterone and cortisol levels to get regulated anyway, so I just have to realize this is how I’m going to feel. I’m going to be nervous, I’m going to be shaking. How am I going to best perform under these situations? How do I power through this?

That’s the worst case scenario. Ideally though, I think in advance, “This is going to be stressful. I’m going to think of this as a challenge.” And what is a challenge? It’s not whether or not I’m going to be successful at the task. It’s “Can I learn from this?” That way I can look forward to it, but I can also use the physiology as cues. You can use the physiology to help you identify the psychology, but you can also use the psychology to prevent the physiology from going badly.

If you think of everything as an opportunity for growth and a learning experience, then that is a challenge, and as long as you learn from it, then you know going in that you’re going to be successful.

“It’s not whether or not I’m going to be successful at the task. It’s ‘Can I learn from this?’”

My best example of that—a young woman I mentor was really nervous. She had just gotten her first job interview, and she had worked really hard on her résumé. She called me and said, “Help me figure out.” I said, “I’m not going to tell you you’re going to get the job, because who knows? What I can promise is that by the end of this, you will never have to have another first job interview of your life ever again. When you go in, mentally prepare for how you can learn from this as much as you possibly can.” She said, “Yeah, I can do that.”

She called me the week afterward and she said, “I wasn’t nervous, and I learned from it. I didn’t get the job, but I’m totally fine.” A week after that, she had her second interview, and she got the offer.

If we’re really focused on the value of improvement and believe in the value of learning and growth, I think you’re good, whether you’re talking about a three-year-old on a soccer pitch or some player in the World Cup.

Michael: Is there a single ideal competitive mindset that you’ve come across?

Ashley: I don’t think there’s one [ideal mindset]. The best competitors know what those things and situations are that make them do their best, and use that to their advantage.

Some people do best playing not to lose, and some people do best feeling anxious, and feeling like they don’t want to let the country down. Some people do best calm. Some people do best playing happy. Some people do best playing angry. Some people do their best fired up, and to tell everyone “You need to be calm” is a big disservice.

If people are stressed, the advice is “You’re not stressed, you’re excited.” You’ve just got to change it to a positive understanding. “This is important to me, and that’s a good thing. We’re going to use that to our benefit.” Rather than, “This is so important, I’m going to implode.”

Michael: I like it. I do talk about the value of calm, but I make sure that there’s some sort of fire. It’s not relaxed and mellow.

Ashley: Pure rage and chronic anger is a problem, but there’s been research that people who get angry in appropriate circumstances have higher mental well-being than those who are just happy all the time. I think anger is the agent of change. Happy people are happy, so there is no reason to change. An angry person says, “No, I need to do something.” The catalyst for anger is perceiving an obstacle in your way, but believing [there’s] something you can do to change it. If you have an obstacle but no power to change it, that doesn’t lead to anger, that leads to despair.

I think anger can be very productive, and we’re told, “Don’t be angry.” I think that’s wrong. It’s about always making sure that you’re moving forward.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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