Share / Print
Research Highlights

Want to win? Create a rival

gavin

By motivating individuals independent of objective stakes, rivalry could foster a willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win, including risk taking and sacrificing one’s own gains to limit one’s rivals.

Rivalry is a great motivator, according to new research by NYU Stern Assistant Professor Gavin J. Kilduff – at least in sports. And it doesn’t just stoke athletes’ drive to win – it actually boosts their performance.

This may seem obvious to anyone who’s ever competed, but previous research has been scant and has even pointed in the opposite direction, Professor Kilduff notes. He designed two studies that supported his thesis and described them in a new paper, “Driven to Win: Rivalry, Motivation, and Performance.”

Professor Kilduff focused on runners, because they race frequently, often against the same people, and the results are undiluted, since they are individuals and not part of a team rivalry. Through surveying a few hundred volunteers, he found evidence that the histories and relationships of competitors can affect their rivalries and, consequently, their motivation and performance in competition. He also used archival information from six years of long-distance races and found that individuals ran faster in races featuring their rivals – relationships he deduced from studying the demographics of the runners and prior race history.

The author points out that such rivalries can be irrational, given that past races shouldn’t affect the present competition. That may be the case, but somehow focusing on an individual to try to beat consistently and creating such a relationship seems to work for competitors. Future research may delve into the potential downsides to rivalry, Professor Kilduff adds: “By motivating individuals independent of objective stakes, rivalry could foster a willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win, including risk taking and sacrificing one’s own gains to limit one’s rivals.”