The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

Three Reasons Why Obama Should Win The Debate

Obama's recent poll victories give him a mental edge in the debate

Whatever the electoral significance of Wednesday’s debate, Barack Obama goes into it with three distinct advantages.

The first is what is known in biology as “The Winner Effect” – whereby the chances of winning a fight against a strong opponent are boosted by a previous victory. US boxing promoters have known this for a long time which is why they arrange pre-championship matches against ‘tomato cans’ – weak opponents. After Mike Tyson came out of prison, for instance, promoter Don King arranged for him to fight two such ‘tomato cans’ – Peter McNeely and Buster Mathis Jr. He went on to take the world championship from Frank Bruno the following year.

Obama has had a series of mini-victories in the polls over the last month and while Mitt Romney is no tomato can, the incumbent president’s successes will give him an edge in the debate. Winning triggers testosterone increases which in turn boosts the activity of the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain, and can make people smarter, bolder, more optimistic and less anxious.  Obama may be more able to perform adroitly in the debate, thinking on his feet and appearing relaxed, confident and bold.

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While the testosterone increases are temporary, the Winner Effect can be long lasting, however, research by Matthew Fuxjager and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin showed. This is because the experience of winning in mice increases the number of testosterone receptors in the parts of the brain linked to motivation and aggression. When faced with another contest, the resulting surge of testosterone will have more powerful effects on the winner because of the greater number of receptors for it.  

Obama’s surge of testosterone on Wednesday night, then, may have a more potent effect on his brain and performance than Romney’s equivalent hormone surge because, if we can generalize from Fuxjager’s research, Obama’s recent mini-victories may have increased the number of testosterone receptors in his brain.  

A second advantage for Obama is that Mitt Romney may suffer from a “loser effect” because of his recent mini-defeats in the polls and media. Losing triggers the stress hormone cortisol which can interfere with the think-on-your-feet capacity that is crucial for the debate.  The wariness and vigilance that follows from defeat can also unconsciously sabotage confidence and performance and undermine the impression of bold, in-control optimism that a presidential candidate requires.

Obama also has a ‘home field advantage’: Although Denver, Colorado is home to neither contender, as incumbent President, Barack Obama is likely to experience the sort of territorial advantage that football and baseball teams benefit from when they play at home. This is particularly the case since Denver will feel very home-like to him because it was here he gave his 2008 presidential acceptance speech. Competing at home – and to the incumbent president, all the USA is home – greatly increases the Winner Effect by turbo-charging the hormonal and brain changes which success causes.

Like the winner and loser effects, the home field advantage depends on increased testosterone levels which alter brain function. Professional soccer teams in England win significantly more often when they play on their home field, and their testosterone levels are correspondingly higher at home.

Every word and gesture of the candidates will have been heavily coached and rehearsed which might seem to dilute the potency of any winner, loser and home field effects. But while most commentators argue that the debate is unlikely to alter voting patterns, there is always the possibility of a slip by one of the candidates which may be damaging.

Examples of this in previous major debates are Al Gore’s rolling his eyes as George W Bush was speaking and Dan Quayle comparing himself to JF Kennedy, gifting Lloyd Bentsen with an opening for the famous put-down  “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”.

No amount of coaching can prevent slips like that because the sheer cognitive demands of keeping in mind what the candidates want to say, listening what the other is saying and keeping check on all movements, postures and expressions are potentially overwhelming.

At this limit of the brain’s processing powers, the slightest changes in chemical and hormonal messengers like testosterone, cortisol and dopamine can either enhance or diminish the candidate’s performance and so could be crucial in determining whether that fatal slip of the tongue or expression is nipped in the bud or leaks out to potentially fatal consequences. 

www.thewinnereffect.com

twitter @ihrobertson

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., the author of The Winner Effect, holds the Chair in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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