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Surprising Science

Losing By A Small Margin Is Actually Encouraging

Whether we’re professional athletes or cellphone gamers, falling just short of our goals can be motivating, not crushing.

Yesterday, Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller was having the best day of his baseball career. He had retired 26 Miami Marlins batters without giving up a hit, and needed just one more out to complete a no-hitter, one of the most coveted single-game achievements for those playing his position. There would be front-page headlines, days of interviews, and Miller would be forever honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame, alongside such legendary pitchers as Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson.

Instead, Marlins first baseman Justin Bour knocked a single up the middle, spoiling Miller’s chance to get his name in the record books. What was poised to be a history-making performance was now merely a very, very good one.

Many baseball fans will be watching to see how Miller recovers from having a major career achievement snatched away from him at the very last possible moment. One could hardly blame him if he fell into a slump in the coming weeks, or even decided to give up baseball altogether for a lower-stakes profession that wouldn’t cause moments of wasted opportunity to replay in his nightmares.

But according to an academic study conducted in Singapore, we may not respond negatively to narrow misses. In fact, close-but-no-cigar experiences motivate us to improve future performance in a wide range of areas. 

“While we often think of motivation as being targeted to a specific reward or goal, these findings support the notion that motivation is like energy and reward is like direction — once this motivational energy is activated, it leads an individual to seek out a broad range of goals and rewards,” said Dr. Monica Wadhwa.

The study tested participants’ responses to defeat by asking them to play a video game with a 16-tile board. They were told that half of the tiles had diamonds underneath, while the other half had rocks. The object of the game was to click on all eight diamonds without finding a rock. Once they finished playing, they could walk to a booth and claim a chocolate bar as a reward.  

In reality, the game was rigged, so that every subject would find seven diamonds and one rock. But while one group found the rock on their second click, the other group found the rock on their eighth and final click, just one diamond away from victory. The participants who had come close to winning appeared more motivated; they arrived to the reward booth an average of 12 seconds faster than the early losers.   

We often think of narrow misses as devastating setbacks that can throw entire lives off course. Although the stakes of its game were low, this study provides hope to anyone who’s ever fallen just short of his or her goals. Whether you’ve given up a hit to that last batter, or you were second in line for that job you really wanted, keep your head up. You’ll get a taste of victory elsewhere, and it might just taste like a chocolate bar. 

Read more at Daily Mail


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