Competition: The Doogie Howser Effect

Galvanized by prodigies. Why whiz kids push you to excel.

By Matthew Hutson, published on January 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Which is a better motivator? Intimidation or inspiration? Turns out, that child prodigy whose precocious achievements make you feel like a dolt will spur you on better than an older superstar—provided you're working in a different field than boy wonder. Repeating his feats (Pulitzer at age 5?) may be an unattainable goal, but the demoralizing comparison will push you to excel in your own way to regain your dignity. In studies reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology, people performed better on a test of verbal skills after reading about a young math whiz than they did after reading about a young word wonk or an older brainiac of either ilk. "If you never feel bad about yourself," says lead author Camille Johnson of Stanford, "you never feel the need to change yourself or do more."

Young Guns

You may be too old to best these feats, but there's more to life than science, movies, and sports.

  • Youngest Nobel laureate: Lawrence Bragg, age 25 in 1915 (physics, shared with his father)
  • Youngest
    Oscar winner: Tatum O'Neal, age 10 in 1974 (best supporting actress)
  • Youngest Major League Soccer player: Freddy Adu, age 14 in 2002 (DC United)