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Sept. 24, 2004


How individuals handle victory impacts ability to learn, hormonal levels

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Some people are more comfortable losing than winning. Others get so depressed or angry if they lose, they don't learn from their mistakes, a University of Michigan study says.

Almost universally, people report being happy after winning and blue after losing, but their ability to learn and their emotional hormonal state are all influenced by their gender as well as their need to have an impact on other people. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Some people want to lose because they feel uncomfortable being the center of attention," said U-M psychology professor Oliver Schultheiss. "So it's not just the situation, but your need for power over others that affects the way you react."

Men and women with a need to make a difference in other peoples lives—a group that includes high-profile/high-impact roles such as politicians, leaders, journalists, comedians and teachers—are considered high in power motivation. This group's ability to learn increases after a victory.

People who shy away from dealing with other people and lack the strong need to impact others are considered low in power motivation. Subjects competed on a test that was rigged for subjects to either win or lose eight out of 10 rounds.

The study found:

Men with a high power motivation who won big saw their testosterone levels surge 10 percent after their victories and the better they performed, the more their ability to learn increased.

Comparable men who lost saw their testosterone levels drop 17 percent and they also showed learning deficits; however, testosterone levels and learning were the exact opposite among low-power motivated men, who were far more comfortable losing than winning.

Like men, high power women showed better learning abilities if they won and worse learning if they lost, and, conversely, low-power women were more likely to show better learning after a defeat than after a victory.

Unlike men, however, high-power motivated women saw no change in testosterone when they won and a 20 percent jump in testosterone when they lost.

"A defeated power-motivated woman may be more dangerous than a defeated power-motivated man because the defeated man has lost his energy and is subdued while the stress of losing has made the woman's testosterone rise sharply," Schultheiss said. "This power motive builds skills in that whatever works for you to have impact on others will be retained in your memory while you try to forget where you failed."

The effect of the hormonal changes typically lasted for about 45 minutes after the tests were conducted.

Previous research has found that people who are high in power motivation often engage in behaviors aiming to have an impact on the world at large, including aggression, gambling and persuasive communication. Power-motivated individuals tend to speak fluently, raise their eyebrows often and gesture a lot when trying to persuade another person.

The researchers studied a large group of German men in 2002 and, more recently, repeated the tests on a mixed group of American men and women.

Low-power motivated winners showed impaired learning relative to high-power winners and low-power losers showed enhanced learning relative to high-power winners, Schultheiss said. Low-power individuals were uncomfortable beating an opponent and more comfortable losing because of their need to avoid having an impact on others, he said.

"People who are lower in power motivation are afraid to win," Schultheiss said. "They fear more punishment."

Research has shown low-power individuals as children tended to be punished for assertive-aggressive acts against parents, siblings and friends and may have learned to associate having an impact on others with negative consequences, he added.

 

Contact: Joe Serwach
Phone: (734) 647-1844
E-mail: jserwach@umich.edu