TOP DOG by Po Bronson


The Science of Winning and Losing
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Bronson and Merryman (Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, 2010, etc.) combine forces again to debunk truisms of positive psychology.

“Competition facilitates improvement,” write the authors. “At a certain point, those with seeds of doubt actually do best,” as they are open to learning from past mistakes and better able to compete. The authors juxtapose what they call adaptive competitiveness (playing by the rules, team spirit and a willingness to accept defeat) with a dog-eat-dog model of ruthless competition and look at how stress can have a beneficial effect on performance. Analyzing record-breaking Olympic performances, high-stakes corporate gambles, competitive chess and more, Bronson and Merryman draw a parallel to sky-diving. “[P]ushing ourselves to the brink is our preferred state. We like competition [because we want]…the thrill ride beyond the limit of our fears.” Probing deeper, the authors cite research showing that women are as competitive as men (and willing to take risks to win) but more strategic in evaluating odds. Though men have a higher testosterone level than women, both benefit from testosterone spikes during competition. The benefits from optimism bias, such as belief in good luck and a winning streak, may seem to work against the authors' counter-thesis, as they freely admit, but it can lead to disastrous underestimates of risk. As both stage performers and athletes claim, there is an optimal level of stress that helps them give their best performance.

Illuminating and entertaining, with some surprising insights from current research in neuroscience and endocrinology.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4555-1515-8
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Twelve
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2012


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