Skip to Content

Book Summary: Top Dog – The Science of Winning and Losing

Why are some people driven by competition, while others wilt under pressure? “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” takes a closer look at our competitive drive, where it comes from, and how to master it. In this book summary, you’ll learn what type of competitor you are: the type of person who plays to win or plays not to lose. You’ll also discover how to use the science behind competition to identify your weaknesses and improve your performance.

Discover the secrets of the world’s top competitors.


  • Are curious why some people perform better under stress than others
  • Want to become a better competitor
  • Are interested in the science behind competition


You might be the kind of person who loves the thrill of competition — or you might be the kind who cringes at the mere thought of competing. If you want to improve your performance, simply being aware of how you react to the stress of a competitive environment is the first step. Everyone is different, so the key is to find the level of calm or arousal that’s optimal for you.

Book Summary: Top Dog - The Science of Winning and Losing

Scientists and researchers have dived deep into this topic to discover why and how those at the top of their fields succeed. When thinking about the science behind competition, be sure to keep these things in mind:

  • There are two types of competitiveness. Not all competition is bad, and adaptive competitiveness can be a positive agent for change.
  • Close competition pushes people harder. Uncertainty of outcome makes everyone believe they have a chance.
  • Avoid “one versus many” situations. Going up against one competitor increases performance on average, but many competitors diminish performance.
  • Make use of your home advantage. An evolutionary response gives you the upper hand when you’re on your own turf.
  • Approach competition from a gain-oriented rather than prevention-oriented perspective. Reframing competitions as challenges rather than threats can improve performance
  • Women compete less than men. Women are less likely to enter competitions than men, but they compete just as fiercely when they’re competing.
  • Don’t get seduced by positive thinking. Positive thinking has benefits, but it can lead to underestimating your opponent and overestimating your abilities.
  • Make use of the power of testosterone (and other chemicals). Your body releases important chemicals that can help you rise to the challenge.
  • Embrace team vibes. Mood and energy can be contagious.


Researcher Renate Deinzer had people jump out of an airplane repeatedly to examine how the body responds to fear. She found that, while there was a significant level of stress that accompanied each jump, the stress level noticeably decreased with each subsequent jump. By the third jump, the hormone surge was comparable to the stress associated with running late for work.

In another experiment, journalist Hunter S. Thompson examined the stress that professional ballroom dancers feel during competition. Competition didn’t pose a threat to their lives or well-being; bragging rights were the only thing at stake. Nevertheless, the stress response of the dancers was comparable to that of the skydivers. Tellingly, while the stress response grew less intense the more times the skydivers jumped out of planes, the stress levels of the dancers remained consistent, regardless of how many times they’d competed before.

This is due to the psychological environment rather than the physical one. The dancing itself wasn’t the source of the stress — the competition was. You can practice something for 10 years and become an expert, but you aren’t judged on practice. The key to success is enduring pressure in a competitive situation and performing your best when it matters. Everything depends on how you manage the stress response and harness the energy it provides. People who win haven’t necessarily practiced more — they just compete better.

It’s a common misconception that competition is destructive and is the opposite of cooperation. Part of this confusion stems from vocabulary. Adaptive competitiveness refers to perseverance and the ability to consistently rise above a challenge — think Magic Johnson on the basketball court. This is commonly referred to as healthy competitiveness and is considered a catalyst for growth and improvement. Maladaptive competitiveness, on the other hand, stems from insecurity and the urge to compare yourself to others. This is the kind of competitiveness that gives the concept of competition its negative connotation.

Competition involves taking risks — the first being entering the competition in the first place. Studies have determined that people tend to be more likely to enter a contest if they focus on what they can win rather than on the odds of winning. Additionally, men are more likely to compete than women because they assess risk differently. This competitive fire is the result of the synergy of both nature and nurture. Of course, every individual is different: Some do better when they avoid stress, whereas others perform better under stress.

In the late 19th century, psychologist Norman Triplett set out to determine whether the stress of competing against another person makes people work harder. He found that, on average, it pushed people to work harder, but not across the board. Some test subjects wilted under the same pressure that pushed others to excel. Triplett found that 50% of the test subjects saw enhanced performance because of competition, 25% were mostly unaffected by it, and another 25% fared worse when competition was introduced to their work. Other studies have proven that this pattern is representative of the general population.

A study conducted by the Air Force Academy proved that people who benefit from competition get an added boost when the competition is close. Cadets who spent time with higher-achievers generally received better grades. To put this data to use, researchers identified the cadets with the lowest grades and assigned them to squadrons with those who had the highest grades, hypothesizing that this combination would improve the grades of the lower-performing cadets.

The experiment backfired: The low-performing cadets did even worse. Researchers found that the low performers were self-segregating to avoid comparison with the high performers, whom they felt they simply couldn’t compete with. However, the squadrons comprised of average performers excelled, likely because the constant close competition pushed them all to do better.

Odds can also affect competitive drive. People generally try harder if they feel they have a chance of winning. If you’re competing against 10 people, you’ll try harder than you would when competing against 100 because your odds of winning are much higher. While research has shown that people do better when up against a competitor, it has also demonstrated that people perform worse when faced with too many competitors.

Home advantage also plays a role in how we approach competition of all kinds — from sports games to political negotiations. Data suggests that those with an athome advantage are likely to receive as much as 160% more as a reward than their opponents. Researchers have concluded that this advantage stems from territorialism: You’ll likely challenge intruders more aggressively and confidently on your own turf and feel more control over the environment.

People also react differently to the presence of spectators. Some child athletes love to have their parents in the crowd, while others find that it adds distracting pressure. Generally, if you’re performing a skill that you’ve mastered, being observed will enhance the performance, but being watched hinders performance of a skill you’re still learning. Unsurprisingly, extroverts tend to work better with the energy provided by spectators, while introverts find this energy distracting.


The COMT gene is responsible for determining how well people perform under pressure. There are two types of COMT enzyme. One is busy and hardworking, and the other is lazy and slow-working. In studies examining people of European descent, a familiar pattern has emerged when it comes to the COMT enzymes: 50% have both slow and fast enzymes, 25% only possess the slow enzymes, and 25% only have the fast ones.

People with the fast enzymes find it easier to deal with stress, while those who have the slower enzymes struggle when faced with pressure. But this doesn’t mean the faster ones are necessarily better. Sometimes, they work too quickly and clear more dopamine than they should. The tradeoff is that some people work better without stress, while others need stress to perform at a high level.

The COMT gene partially accounts for why men and women handle stress differently. Estrogen significantly slows down the reabsorption of dopamine, meaning that the baseline levels of dopamine are higher in women than they are in men. Because of this, research has determined that stress generally helps men and hinders women. Male brains tune out emotional cues when they’re stressed, but the female brain seeks them out.

Gendered differences in competitiveness largely derive from differences in eagerness to enter competition. While there is very little difference between how much effort men and women exert in competition, women are less likely to enter a competition to begin with. For example, research has found that in US politics, candidates who are women win just as often as their male counterparts, but there are fewer women in office because fewer women are willing to enter an election.

This isn’t because women are less politically competitive or ambitious but because men and women assess the risk of entering a competition differently. Studies have shown that men will run for any office with any chance of winning, but women will only run if they feel they’re likely to win — generally when their chances of winning are 20% or greater. Overall, men are more willing to gamble with long odds than women, while women are more likely to consider the costs and benefits before deciding to enter a contest.

Women also tend to be more conservative when it comes to risky behavior and are better judges of their abilities than men, who have a habit of overestimating their abilities. This is what discourages women from entering competitions: not that they’re more risk-averse, but that they appraise the risk more accurately and recognize when they’re likely to lose. They don’t bother sinking their time or resources into a lost cause.

These balancing behavioral differences between men and women demonstrate the importance of involving both men and women in an organization. Men help the company take risks that are often necessary for growth, while women are better at making accurate predictions and projections that help the company avoid trouble.

Additionally, groups tend to be more naturally competitive, which accounts for some of the gendered competitive differences. On average, men spend more of their lives in groups than women do, while women are more likely to socialize or work in pairs, where competitive overtones aren’t as strong. It’s believed that this social structure dates back to the time of widespread hunter-gatherer societies, wherein men hunted in groups. Groups create an environment where men need to assert themselves to be heard. This assertiveness encourages disagreement and debate between peers. On the other hand, pairs tend to be less confrontational and competitive than groups.


Perspective can make a difference when it comes to analyzing risk. If you’re focused on the positives, you’ll be more likely to accept risks than if you’re focused on the odds. Some people and companies play to win; others play not to lose. Both approaches have advantages but playing to win will generally bring you more success in the long run.

It’s human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but everyone leans a little more to one side or the other. These inclinations become even more pronounced in a competitive situation. Success-oriented people are more likely to take big risks to help them succeed. Failure-avoidant people, on the other hand, will take fewer risks. It’s also possible for people to stray to the opposite direction in some cases. For example, most people tend to become more prevention-oriented as they get closer to the end of a competition.

You’ll likely make more mistakes if you’re focused on avoiding mistakes. For example, a soccer player who will lose the game if they miss a penalty kick will only make the kick 62% of the time, but if missing the kick means the team will tie, the kicker has a 92% chance of successfully scoring. This significant statistical difference is due to psychological factors. While the first scenario is framed by the threat of losing, the second is a challenge to win.

When competition is framed as a threat (such as losing), the risk associated with it is at the forefront of your mind. However, when framed as a challenge, you aren’t necessarily expected to win, but you’re given the opportunity to rise to the occasion. This perception of opportunity releases hormones in the brain that make you fearless and committed to securing the prize. In most cases, changing the lens through which you observe the situation can be the difference between success and failure. Thus, if you want to light your competitive fire, you must play to win. If your natural inclination is to play not to lose, you need to adjust how you think about competition.

Luck plays an interesting role in competitions. Experiencing a near-miss has the power to trigger undue optimism and make people believe they’re lucky, which encourages them to take more risks. Believing you’re lucky can help you succeed in competition because it gives you a confidence boost that pushes you to perform at a higher level. Believing in luck can also help keep both sides of an uneven competition motivated: The prospect of a lucky victory will inspire the underdog to work harder, whereas the team with the upper hand will continue to work hard in case their opponent is having a lucky day.

Positive psychology can also have a negative effect on competitors because it’s hard to learn from your mistakes when you only think about the positives. While positive thinking may increase your self-efficacy, it may also mislead you. It may convince you to compete by eliminating doubt, but you may find yourself underestimating your opponent and putting you in a worse competitive position. Rather than focusing on positive or negative thinking, it’s better to put additive thinking into action when competing. Additive thinkers reflect on mistakes by thinking about what they could do differently if the situation arises again, which will better position them in future competition.

The sex hormone testosterone gets a bad rap, but it can be helpful in a competition. In anticipation of intense competition, the body’s chemistry will undergo changes by releasing hormones like testosterone in order to prepare. A surgeon undertaking a big surgery, for example, might receive as much as a 500% increase in testosterone. Testosterone can dim the fear response in the brain, allowing you to take smarter risks.

Women have about a seventh of the amount of testosterone that men do, and a testosterone boost isn’t always seen in women during competition. Research has found that women tend to seek out companionship as a means of dealing with stress. If they make friends with their competitors beforehand, they won’t experience the precious testosterone boost.

Cortisol and oxytocin are also misunderstood hormones that play important roles in competition. Cortisol has long been negatively associated with stress, but in reality, the body needs cortisol to produce energy. In fact, studies have found that cortisol can actually have a calming effect — after all, it’s the body’s response to stress, not the cause. Meanwhile, the “love hormone” oxytocin can generate intense emotions that may help you defeat your competitor.

Collective: The Hierarchy of Teams

The shared identity that comes from being part of a team is enough to motivate people to work harder. Research shows that simply telling two people they have the same birthday will make them a more productive team. This principle also applies to spectatorship. Different parts of your brain light up depending on whether you’re watching your favorite team compete or watching two random teams you have no allegiance to.

These benefits of being part of a team are due to mirror processing, wherein your brain functions as if you’re actually doing what you’re watching. This is why you automatically yawn when you see another person yawn. Mirror processing enables teams to influence each other’s energy and mood and creates a collaborative atmosphere.

But being on a team also has downsides. Research shows that, when working as part of a small team, a person’s productivity can drop by as much as 40%. This is because coordinating a team takes a considerable amount of effort. Teams work best when everyone is working toward the same singular goal, communication is succinct, and there’s a clear division of responsibilities.


Whether jumping out of an airplane or playing a round of chess, people like to test themselves. Everyone competes in life — even those who are averse to risky, highstakes situations. Scientific research elucidates why some people excel when faced with the pressure of competing, and others crumble under the stress.

Learning about your own responses to competition and reframing your mindset can help you better deal with stress and find success in the future.

About the author

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman previously collaborated on The New York Times bestseller NutureShock. They’ve also won many awards for their reporting and have written for publications such as Newsweek, The Guardian, and Time. Bronson wrote five books prior to their collaboration, and Merryman’s work was published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Daily Beast.

    Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

    Your Support Matters...

    We run an independent site that\'s committed to delivering valuable content, but it comes with its challenges. Many of our readers use ad blockers, causing our advertising revenue to decline. Unlike some websites, we haven\'t implemented paywalls to restrict access. Your support can make a significant difference. If you find this website useful and choose to support us, it would greatly secure our future. We appreciate your help. If you\'re currently using an ad blocker, please consider disabling it for our site. Thank you for your understanding and support.