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The Biological Basis for the ‘Thrill of Victory’

Research has demonstrated why the brain likes a winner.

By Angela Grippo and Brad Sagarin

Welcome to the Wide World of Psychology, a monthly blog devoted to the world of psychological research produced by psychology professors at Northern Illinois University. As we prepare to watch the Baltimore Ravens face off against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on February 3, our first post begins with a nod to ABC’s Wide World of Sports and the line it made famous: “The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat.” It’s no surprise that we prefer winning to losing. Winning feels good. Losing feels bad. But why do we prefer to win rather than to lose? Why does victory feel better than defeat?

Part of the answer is flowing through our bloodstreams. It’s testosterone, a hormone associated with dominance and aggression in women and men. Testosterone levels help explain which lawyers thrive in the competitive atmosphere of the courtroom and which prefer the quiet solitude of the patent desk. Testosterone also explains who will rise to the top of a dominance hierarchy and who will sink to the bottom. Testosterone makes you feel powerful and potent.

So, is a boost in testosterone one of the “rewards” of winning? Psychologists began to examine this question by measuring testosterone levels in athletes who won or lost tennis or wrestling matches. As expected, winners showed significantly higher levels of testosterone than did losers. Of course, tennis and wrestling are strenuous physical activities, and it is possible that changes in testosterone levels were simply associated with the strenuous exercise rather than winning or losing.

To deal with this question, Allan Mazur and his colleagues Alan Booth and James Dabbs found an equally intense but non-physical competition: chess tournaments (see “Testosterone and Chess Competition” in Social Psychology Quarterly, 1992). Despite the mental nature of the competition, winners once again showed significantly higher levels of post-match testosterone than did losers. But as research-methods professors love to remind us: Correlation does not imply causation. So even the study of chess players couldn’t show whether winning and losing caused the changes in testosterone. Establishing cause requires an experiment.

Brian Gladue, Michael Boechler, and Kevin McCaul created just such an experiment (see “Hormonal Response to Competition in Human Males” in Aggressive Behavior, 1989). Gladue and colleagues invited undergraduate men into the lab to participate in a reaction time contest against an opponent. After 50 trials, one man was declared the winner, the other the loser. Of critical importance, the winner and the loser were determined randomly—the outcome had nothing to do with which man was actually faster.

Consistent with the studies of athletes and chess players, winners showed significantly higher testosterone levels than did losers. But now the researchers could conclude that winning had caused the higher levels of testosterone. Thus, a boost in testosterone appears to be part of the thrill of winning—and a drop in testosterone, part of the agony of defeat.

Recent research by Raquel Costa and Alicia Salvador (see "Associations Between Success and Failure in a Face-to-face Competition and Psychobiological Parameters in Young Women" in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2012) shows that this effect is not limited to men. And a fascinating study by Steven Stanton and colleagues (see "Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters' Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election" In PLoS ONE, 2009) found that the effect extends well beyond direct competitors. On the night of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, testosterone levels of male Obama voters stayed level, whereas testosterone levels of male McCain and Barr voters dropped. Alas, no one measured Obama's testosterone level that night, but it's a safe bet he had no shortage running through his system.

To delve further into the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, we’ll need to take a look at the effects of winning and losing on two brain chemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine.

The brain responds differently to reward and punishment. Specific brain regions and chemicals are responsible for our experience of positive emotions, which accompany rewarding stimuli such as winning. An important brain chemical that plays a role in our experience of positive emotions is dopamine. This chemical mediates various emotions, such as pleasure, happiness, and excitement, due in part to its actions in a brain area called the nucleus accumbens. This brain region is activated in several circumstances involving positive emotions and pleasure, and can influence the thrill that one feels after a victory. Interestingly, this same brain region has been shown to play a role in the feelings of pleasure and excitement that one experiences when using drugs of abuse; and this same brain region might be under-performing in individuals with mood disorders such as depression.

A different chemical, norepinephrine, regulates our experience of negative emotions, which can influence the feeling of agony during defeat. One brain area that receives signals from norepinephrine is the amygdala. This brain area is primarily active during our experience of negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness.

Combined, the activity of the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala may have a profound effect on one’s experience of the outcome of a competition. The specific function of these brain areas will differ depending on whether one is on the top or the bottom of a competition, such as during a sporting event like the Super Bowl, in the boardroom, in the classroom, and even during a casual conversation over dinner.

So, is there really a thrill to winning, and agony in defeat? Of course that is the case, and as our first blog entry points out, there is a biological basis for the emotional responses to winning and losing. Perhaps our biology drives us to be competitive. But, as recent events in the cycling world show us, that drive can also lead to poor decision making. How do we learn to become gracious in defeat or to simply enjoy the competition? Can we even do that? Well, these are questions for a future entry.

Dr. Brad Sagarin is a Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. He teaches courses on evolutionary psychology, attitude change, and statistics. His research interests include social influence, resistance to persuasion, deception, jealousy, and infidelity, human sexuality, and research methods.

Dr. Angela Grippo is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses about neuroscience and the brain. Her research is focused on the interactions of emotions, social interactions, and the heart, including the psychological and biological underpinnings of the link between depression and heart disease.