In this week's issue of The Brilliant Report: When competition boosts your performance—and when it's counterproductive. Plus, this week's top blog posts, a selection of articles and posts about gender issues, and a Brilliant Quote from professor and researcher David C.Geary, about why we should take evolution into account when we think about how we learn.
Competition: Use with caution Top Dog, a new book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman about “the science of winning and losing,” is in large part a celebration of competition. The authors of the bestselling NurtureShock explore the benefits of what they call “competitive fire”—stories of Olympic swimmers, champion chess players, and upstart political candidates who reached the top by racing someone else. But just as interesting are the cases in which we do better without the element of competition. Sometimes, it turns out, competing against others can actually make our performance worse. Here, a guide to managing competition—starting with three scenarios in which competition is counterproductive:

1. When we feel threatened. Bronson and Merryman describe an experiment in which researchers gave 124 Princeton University underclassmen a test that drew its questions from the GRE, the graduate school admissions test. For some of the students, the investigators added to the stress of this difficult exam in two ways. First, the students were asked to report which high school they’d attended and how many of their high school classmates were also at Princeton. “This was intended to make most test-takers feel as if they were alone at Princeton, that they were lucky to be at Princeton, and that they had barely made the bar for admittance,” Bronson and Merryman explain.
       Second, researchers further added to students’ stress by labeling the test as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire.” Bronson and Merryman again: “They wanted the test’s title to be threatening to the students, to make the students fear that, if they did poorly, the test would reveal they lacked the true ability to be at Princeton.” The other group of students answered the questions about high school only after taking the test, when it could no longer affect their performance, and their exam went by the less-threatening name ”Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire.”
       The results? Students in the first group answered 72% of the questions correctly; those in the second group got 90% of their answers right. By subtly manipulating the competitive stress felt by the participants, Bronson and Merryman note, the researchers “were able to engineer an 18% difference in their test scores.”
2. When we're afraid of confirming a stereotype. Consider a classic study of the phenomenon known as “stereotype threat,” the apprehension felt by members of certain groups, such as female or African-American students, that a poor performance will confirm a negative stereotype about them–”girls aren’t good at math” or “blacks aren’t college material”. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1995, the study had groups of students, both white and black, take the same test; as in the Princeton experiment described by Bronson and Merryman, the test was presented slightly differently to each group. Some participants were told that that the test would evaluate their intellectual abilities; others were told that it was a laboratory puzzle task that did not assess ability.
       Black students who thought their intelligence was being evaluated did worse on the test than their white counterparts, while black students who believed they were simply figuring out puzzles (a condition the researchers termed “stereotype-safe”) did much better, equaling the white students’ scores. A follow-up study found that self-doubts and negative racial stereotypes were more likely to intrude on the thoughts of African-American students who anticipated taking an evaluative test; African-American students who expected to complete a puzzle exercise were less likely to encounter such thoughts.

3. When it's not a fair fight. One more story from Bronson and Merryman: In the mid-1990s, they recount, the commandant of the U.S. Air Force Academy became concerned that the number of cadets experiencing academic trouble was on the rise. Economists Scott Carrell and James West studied the cadets and noticed a pattern: cadets with lower grades improved academically if they spent time with cadet friends who did well in school. So the academy deliberately engineered the composition of the squadrons of entering cadets, grouping cadets with lower GPAs and SAT scores with cadets who’d achieved high grades and scores.
       The intervention was a failure. The low-performing cadets actually did worse than before. Why? Unable to compete with their high-flying squadron mates, the low-performers gave up trying. Bronson and Merryman explain: “Contests only work when it’s an even match up, or a close race, such that the extra effort becomes the decider between wining and losing. People need at least a fighting chance. When leaders are not challenged, they coast a little. Those too far behind stop trying as hard, lacking any sense that winning is feasible.”

The takeaway: Human beings are supremely sensitive to context, to the cues we sense in our surroundings, and never more so than when we’re performing. When you feel stressed or threatened, you can try mentally reframing the situation as a game or a challenge; when young people feel anxious, parents and teachers can help by downplaying the evaluative nature of the event. But when we feel strong and capable, when we feel like a contender—then we can use the spur of competition to reach new heights.

(Want to read past issues of The Brilliant Report? You'll find them here.)

This Week's Top Blog PostS 1. What's Behind The Rise Of The Helicopter Parent?
2. When Siblings Remember Childhood Differently
3. What Time To Hold Your Meetings, And Other Advice On Teams
4. How Playing A Musical Instrument Could Ease Dyslexia
5. Learning To Love New Music
6. Start Early To Prevent Innumeracy
7. Designing The Classroom To Enhance Learning
8. The Dilemma Of The Male Teacher
9. Recalling Memories Makes Them Stronger
10. Is The Cartoon "Arthur" Teaching Your Child To Behave Badly?

Articles and Blog posts About . . . GENDER ISSUES 1. One Reason Boys Lag Behind In School
2. How One Teacher Handles The Gender Divide On Arguing
3. Why Do Girls Do Better In School?
4. Do Boys And Girls Learn Differently? These Schools Say Yes
5. How To Fix The "Tech Gap"? Curiosity
6. Boys And Girls In The Classroom
7. Men And Women On Risk And Failure
8. "She" And "Her" Show Up On The Page
9. Stereotyping Robots
10. Women Get Higher Grades In Science From Female Professors

If you have comments or questions, I'd love to hear from you by email: And if you'd like to read even more about learning, you can visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook. Be brilliant!

All my best,

This Week's Brilliant Quote"Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a framework for organizing and understanding all living things. How we learn—and what we are interested in learning about—is also shaped by natural selection. Most demands of life are relatively mundane and change little across the millennia. Our minds have evolved to handle these predictable bits of information with ease. Dramatic variation, such as an outbreak of disease or war, brings unexpected challenges and can have a disproportionate influence on our survival. Those who can deftly solve problems to survive such fluctuating circumstances gain an edge. In essence, we have two modes for dealing with information—autopilot and conscious engagement. Whereas automated processing handles the universal features of the social and ecological worlds, our conscious problem-solving abilities let us register nuances in our environments. By understanding both mechanisms for learning, we achieve deep insight into how children think. We can begin to see why children pick up some skills effortlessly and others with substantial struggle. An evolutionary approach to teaching could help educators bridge the divide between children's innate cognitive biases and the goals of contemporary schooling, potentially revealing more effective ways to educate future generations."—David C. Geary, "Primal Brain in the Modern Classroom"

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