“Winning increases the dopamine receptors in the brain, which makes you smarter and more bold” – Ian H. Robertson
There’s a very interesting phenomena in biology I’ve been wanting to link to gamification called “the winner effect.” When any animal, from fish to humans, wins a contest, they have a large release of testosterone and dopamine in the brain. Over time this changes their brains structure and chemical makeup, making them more confident, smarter, and able to take on larger challenges than before. Cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson explains that “Success and failure shapes us more powerfully than genetics and drugs.” Nurture changes nature.
The winner effect is a well researched phenomenon in different competitive fields such as chess, sports and business. In the book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, John Coates describes how the effects of winning on Wall Street traders. His research focused more on how testosterone and cortisol affect the profits of traders in the real world. Ian H. Robertson’s has also written on how winning can be better adapted for educational purposes but serves for enterprise as well. Both deliver the same message: Winning will change your biology, making you more likely to win harder challenges in the future.
A core part of the winners effect depends on the dopamine releases that come from game mechanics, which gamification designers uses to make something fun. Testosterone is not a topic I’ve seen discussed in gamification, but its also a hormone released during competition. All competitors release it before a big game, and afterwards usually only the winners will get a boost while the losers testosterone falls. This opposite effect with testosterone reduction is called the “loser effect.” It makes the loser meek and timid over time, its submissiveness an evolutionary advantage preventing it from getting into future fights that could cost it its life since it has a history of losing.
Testosterone is usually linked with negative connotations like violence and aggression, but it also has the effect of social bonding and wanting to protect your loved ones. The same brain circuitry used for love is also used for hate new research claims.
Po Bronson stated in an interview:
“Collaboration and competition are the same hormone: testosterone. There’s no such thing as collaborating without competition in the real world. To compete does not mean to cheat or break the rules, it means to go head-to-head and be better than your opponent. Certainly inside a corporation people need to collaborate for the corporation to be competitive.”
Studies done by the evolutionary psychologist David Geary on the effects of testosterone on subjects playing video games reveal some interesting findings:
If a group of friends team up and win against strangers in an online first-person shooters their testosterone goes up (winner effect), the top scoring player has the highest testosterone boost. If these same friends play individually against each other, testosterone drops for everyone (the loser effect) and the top scoring player at the free-for-all against friends gets punished for attacking these friends with the the most testosterone dropped. Evolution has punished backstabbers.
These effects will happen in the real world regardless of gamification, its a fact of life in all human relations. The use of game mechanics could be used to manipulate them for a desired effect though. For instance, competing against colleagues probably lowers the performance of your entire team since the brain punishes competition with friends (losers effect). In order to enhance a team by fostering cohesion and a collective winners effect its better to compete as a team against other teams of strangers.
But don’t downplay the performance of top players either in an ideological attempt for egalitarianism and fairness, that will drive your team into mediocrity. An MMO guild acknowledges everyone’s contribution, but treasure is divided unequally depending on the output of the individuals actions. Studies show that unequal pay for equal work and vice versa pisses off monkeys…and humans.
“As a species, we share the same biology with other animals, but express it uniquely. We can have two humans sitting at a table doing nothing more physically taxing than one of them moving a little piece of wood on the table. And if it happens that these two individuals are at a chess tournament, then they are able to keep [up] a blood pressure for six hours [at a level] that you normally only see in a marathon runner, while doing nothing more than thinking. And this is outrageous because when you look at these chess Grand Masters who’ve just taken down an opponent, they will have the exact same physiology of some wild baboon in the savannah who has just ripped open the stomach of his worst rival.”
Gives a whole new perspective to “It’s just a game” doesn’t it?
It’s all power games. What you must understand is that your brain is subconsciously always assessing what your strength and status is compared to others and realigning your behavior and intelligence in a way that allows you to play it safe. For example:studies show that if you enter a situation where you have low status in a group, it will literally lower your IQ. Intelligence is not fixed, it fluctuates based on social context. Research on power by Stanford professor Deborah Gruenfeld reveal that we’re always establishing social hierarchies in subtle ways with our body language, voice tone, level of expertise assessed, etc.
When you win your brain is essentially saying “I’m powerful enough to be the boss now” and begins to change itself biologically to become smarter and more assertive in order to maintain itself on top of a social hierarchy. By winning as a group, the subconscious mind of teams say “we are in charge now” and begins to change accordingly. Their body language becomes more open to establish status, and others (competitors) subtly submit to them allowing them to win (if you practice martial arts you can feel when someone fears you a little how they just gives up).
I think this is significant to point out since it can lead to both positive and negative aspects. There’s two types of power:
- Personalized power is where people want power for selfish reasons. They want to dominate for the sake of it.
- Socialized power is where people want power to be able to influence a social cause, like saving the whales. It’s not to dominate other people.
Personalized power is where power can get its bad name like having a dictator, while with socialized power it gets its positive view, such as democracy. The winner effect can changes people from being powerless and insecure into one of both extremes. I believe we can all agree that ideally we want people becoming more confident to carry out projects that benefit society (socialized), not the dominating dictator from personalized.
Business professor at Stanford Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote in his book: Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t that in order to succeed in your career you must have both needs for power. In one way you need that selfish need to self-improvement and dominance, and the other to want to better your society so people will follow you. People with only S power and no P power don’t get far in life. That’s just how things are.
The winners effect can make someone have power go over its head. Coates talks about how high testosterone and dopamine are a predictor of success in the stock market, but too much of the winner effect in your brain and you start making stupid decisions (failure grounds us to reality). Ian H. Roberts quotes Pablo Picasso talking to his adult son, which describes people with too much personalized power:
“You’re incapable of looking after your children! You are incapable of making a living! You’re mediocre. You are wasting my time. I am El Rey, the King. And you- you are my thing.”
Picasso may not have been the nicest man but the winner effect in power balanced individuals (both P and S power) will have positive effects. It can encourage people to become someone with confidence trying to make a positive mark for themselves and their loved ones.
Designing for the winner effect seems like a natural add on to gamification since it comes along with the fun mechanics we all love. The winner and loser effects are happening all the time so gamification systems might as well leverage it to our advantage with proper designs. Having fun will make you smarter, more confident and earn you a bigger profit at work. Of course more research and experimentation must be done to come up with a practical system, but the future seems promising.
“My business is to succeed, and I’m good at it. I create my Iliad by my actions, create it day by day” – Napoleon Bonaparte