The Superstar Effect

I've got a new essay in the WSJ about Tiger Woods, the hazards of playing against a superstar, and why we choke in high-pressure situations. The subplot of the piece is the positive feedback loop of success, or why winning in the past makes us more likely to win in the future. Every underdog, it turns out, has to rage against the natural insecurities of the mind (take note, Butler):

Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as "Fischer-fear." Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer's greatest rival, once said: "When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive."

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren't limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don't rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.

The negative effect of superstars has been most clearly demonstrated in professional golf, which for the last decade has been dominated by Tiger Woods. Next week, Mr. Woods ends his self-imposed exile from the game and returns to the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament, in Augusta, Ga. It will be his first competition since November, when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia.

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be "de-motivating" in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. "Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better," Ms. Brown says. "But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn't matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we're probably going to lose?"

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of "confounding team dynamics" to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

The numbers back up the legend: When Mr. Woods's break from golf began, in November, he had a World Golf Ranking score of 16.169, which was nearly twice the total of the next two players. He has more career major wins than any other active golfer, and has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player's position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the "superstar effect" boosted Mr. Woods's PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

The analysis is really an investigation into economic tournament theory, which looks at competitive situations in which success is based on relative performance, and not absolute metrics. (It's the difference between a sports game and a standardized test.) Modern management practice assumes that the best way to maximize employee performance is to institute sports-like tournaments, in which people compete directly against each other. Consider, for instance, the competitive structure put in place by former CEO Jack Welch at General Electric. He instituted what became known as the 20-70-10 rule: the top 20% of employees got generous financial bonuses, and the bottom 10% were "managed out."

There is little doubt that, in many situations, such incentive structures lead to motivated employees, working hard for the top spots. But the presence of a superstar can reverse this dynamic, so that instead of trying our best we accept the inevitability of defeat.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are "nonlinear," or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. "The lawyers know that most of them won't be retained," she says. "They either win the competition, or they're let go." The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present--when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite--every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we're going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

Here's the link for more.

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This is quite interesting. It causes me to wonder how this applies in cases where someone is super rich or super beautiful or super smart or super anything in this game called life.

By Loughlin Tatem (not verified) on 04 Apr 2010 #permalink

Northwestern is doing interesting research....few thoughts...

- No doubt there is a social animal analogy based on dominance, Robert Saplosky at Standford would be a source
- The macro effect of this is discussed in "winner take all" phenomena, eg the Matthews Effect and Power Laws...there is also a crowding out aspect...
- There is another driver in wider and quicker distribution of information regarding performance and relative performance which magnifies all this...

there is also good research in the group information processing area about work-related effects.

Choosing golf, with it's "confounding course dynamics (every course is unique)," is a seemingly odd way to show what the world already knew from golf, everyone was playing for second place. If the superstar effect is valid, then by this woman's methodology, you should EASILY see it for say, Edwin Moses's 100+ straight wins in a row in the 110 Hurdles in the 80s (by marked time increases in his competitors' times when he's NOT in the race) or even Roger Federer's run in tennis...Track and field would seem to be the BEST place to run tests for this...Golf, I'm not so sure unless she can go back and show the exact same effect during Jack Nicklaus's days...Or show that when John Daly is in a tournament, the competition plays BETTER!...I don't like the "superstar" effect...can't we call it the "intimidator effect"...because that's really what's going on...


An NBER paper quotes your piece: "fleeting youth, fading creativity" ( I was just wondering even after convincing cases of neurogenesis past our prime, you still believe that hardly can anything be done late in life. Or as the author of that paper puts it:

"If the ages at which the greatest practitioners of
a discipline create their greatest innovations yield a bimodal distribution, it is at best misleading to refer to a single peak or prime age for the entire field."

By alfred renyi (not verified) on 04 Apr 2010 #permalink

I think this makes sense if we only think from a competitive winner-takes-all standpoint but many things in life are collaborative efforts and I wonder what effects superstars have in collaborative/creative environments.

By david karapetyan (not verified) on 04 Apr 2010 #permalink

It seems that in a work environment, there could be a multiplying effect if the "superstar" happened to be an "asshole" (Bob Sutton - The no asshole rule), especially in workplace teams. I've experienced this in multidisciplinary teams, managing it can be a real challenge. It could lead to the so-called Abilene paradox, where team members with lesser status fail to contribute on important issues, leading to wrong decisions.

When I read this article, I am wondering if someone with a condition like Autism or Asperger's would be able to overwrite this superstar effect? Been listening to interviews of Micheal Lewis, author of "The Big Short" about how an person with aspergers foresaw the financial crisis and made a fortune out of it.

By Fouridine (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

the management by competition fails to take in account that only a certain percentage of the employees are "competitors". A majority of the employee population do not enjoy unending competition, especially when you consider that a good portion of our lives are spent at work. Furthermore, whereas a company needs "competitors" (and "renegades"), it would collapse without the "worker bees" that make up the majority of the workforce. Unending competition in the workplace, especially in this economy, is like running from a man-eating lion, fighting for your life all the time - it's called stress!


That's a good point on using track and field data. Makes me wonder if the effect would show up on the short events, though. For a hundred-yard dash...there's only so much you can doubt yourself in the space of ten seconds. A golf tournament takes days.

(Are there similar examples of, say, a marathon runner who outclassed everyone in their era?)

By Sunflower (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

How do we counteract this effect?

This is quite interesting. It causes me to wonder how this applies in cases where someone is super rich or super beautiful or super smart or super anything in this game called life.

Only if you are super insecure. The social dynamics of the situations described in the article, like the way the lawyers jockey for a partnership, are basically winner-take-all competitions. "Giving up" because you are super smart, but there might be someone on the planet who is smarter than you, sounds like a really dumb thing to do. Life in general isn't a winner-take-all competition.

Some argue that competition itself is negative. The Case Against Competition

Whether or not competition itself is net negative, the article only focuses on one specific type of competitive situation.

This was a really good article, I would like to point out that there are few athletes out there that may not fall into the superstar trap. Raphael Nadal is one of these athletes, when he faces Roger Federer, Roger usually coasts through most of his matches because he is a superstar and they buckle under mental pressure, but when Nadal came and faced Federer, Nadal did not have the fear and since then has beat Federer more times than any other tennis player. And now it seems as if Roger faces a little bit of the superstar effect when he plays Nadal. Very interesting.

Interesting article. As an avid sports fan, I already knew this, but it is now clearer and makes more sense. As a marketer in Kenya, I can see the effects of it in our industry and in our country