What Rocky Got Wrong: Underdogs Have Less Motivation

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 7:34 PM EDT

Think of every sports movie you've ever seen. From Rocky to Semi-Pro, the genre thrives on tales of underdogs who rise up by sheer will and determination to beat a superior opponent. Yet in the real world, while underdogs are appealing, it's their superior rivals who have the most motivation to win, according to recent research from the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University.

As Fisher professor Robert Lount, who co-authored the study with Cornell University's Nathan Pettit, said in a Fisher press release:

"We found over and over again across multiple studies that people worked about 30 percent harder when their group was competing against a lower-status group. It seems surprising to many people that the high-status team has more motivation, but it really makes sense. The higher-ranked group has more to lose if they don't compare well against a lower-status group. But if you're the lower-status group and lose to your superior rival, nothing has changed -- it just reaffirms the way things are."
The research, which appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has implications not just for coaches of sports teams, but for business managers as well. The research suggests that managers can better motivate teams by talking about the lower-ranked competitors nipping at their heels than by asking them to reach up and displace a more successful competitor.

"If groups just focus on ways to gain status, they're missing out on a motivational opportunity," said Lount. "People are going to work harder to not lose what status they already have than they will to try to become higher status."

Image courtesy of Flickr user markhillary, CC 2.0.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.