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The Winner Effect: The Science of Success and How to Use It

I was lucky enough to attend a breakfast seminar with Prof Ian Robertson about his new book the winner effect. Ian is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist and Professor of the psychology dept in TCD as well as having numerous visiting Professor positions.  You can find him on twitter @ihrobertson

I was particularly excited about this talk as neuropsychology is a real passion of mine. If I wasn’t an Organisational Psychologist, I’d probably be a neuropsychologist.

Ian began the talk by presenting us with a mystery of cichlid fish, showing us a picture of two males, one, a brightly coloured, larger, more aggressive T male and the other a smaller, colourless NT male, which bears more resemblance to a female of the species. In fact, it can often be very difficult to tell the difference between an NT male and a female. Ian asked us to consider how the NT male can transform into a T male in the space of 24 hours. As an avid collector of cichlids for many years, I knew this happened. I have witnessed it with my own eyes but I did not realise it happened so quickly! Below is an example of a T male and an NT male. The difference is quite remarkable.


Ian left us to ponder the mystery of the cichlids and moved on by asking, what breeds success? The answer, of course, is success. Success increases our levels of testosterone and dopamine. The more successful we are, the more permanently our brains are altered because we produce more receiving areas for testosterone. This applies to women as well. Women produce testosterone too, just on a smaller scale than men. Failure, in turn, decreases levels of testosterone.

Success also increases our levels of dopamine, producing the same effect as cocaine. Dopamine acts as an antidepressant and decreases levels of anxiety. As a result, Ian suggested that we contrive to create small successes for our reports, our colleagues, even our children. Essentially anyone who we want to make feel better.

Home Advantage

Its long been known that “playing at home” whether in sports or business – in negotiations for example – gives us a significant psychological advantage but what is less well known is that it also gives us a significant biological advantage. Being “at home” increases our levels of both testosterone and dopamine, according to Ian, and maximises our chance of success.


Benjamin Franklin is widely regarded as a true genius. He discovered cognitive dissonance centuries before any psychologist. Although he did not call it this, he worked out the effect it could have and how he could use it to his advantage. He had an enemy in Government, a man who opposed everything Franklin was in favour of. It was known that this man had a treasured possession, a very old and rare book. Franklin toiled to find a way to get this man on side. Then, one day, he decided to ask the man if he could borrow his book. Somewhat to Franklin’s surprise the man agreed. This placed him in a state of what we know today as cognitive dissonance. Ian likened it to have an itch in your brain that you can’t scratch and it is very unsettling. The man could not change his behaviour as he had already given the book to Franklin so his only alternative was to change his attitude towards Franklin. Soon he was lending Franklin books without being asked. He eventually changed his attitude toward Franklin so much that he became one of his staunchest political allies.

According to Ian, the lessen we can all take from this is that if you intend to ask someone a big favour down the line, for example, if you want them to start buying your product or using your service instead of the people they currently use, you need to start by asking them a series of small favours. Then, when you come to ask the big favour, they are more likely to say yes.

Goal Setting

Setting goals for your staff is tricky at the best of times. If you set them too high, they will fail. If you set them too low, they will complete them with ease but will become bored and unmotivated. According to Ian, what we should aim for is the “Goldilocks” zone where goals are reachable but challenging and give people a real sense of achievement when they reach them. By doing this you have created a situation where they have been successful and, as we know, that leads to more success.

Wear Red

Red is linked to increased levels of testosterone and studies have shown that an athlete wearing red is significantly more likely to defeat an opponent who is not wearing red. A lot of this research has been carried out in the Olympics and specifically in Greco-Roman wrestling where individuals are assigned red or blue kit on a completely random basis yet the results of the fights indicate that the wrestler wearing red is statistically significantly more likely to win.

Let us relate this to something that most of us will be more familiar with. The main kits of Liverpool FC (18) and Man Utd (20) with 38 league titles between them, nearly twice as many as their closest rivals, are red.

What a lot of people will not know is that Liverpool did not always wear red as we’d assume. It was not until Bill Shankly took over as manager that he changed their kit to the famous all red that is synonymous with Liverpool today. Not long after Shankly’s colour change, Liverpool began to dominate English & European football for over 2 decades. Perhaps Shankly knew about the power of red before science proved it!

The same thing occurs in other sports too. Tiger Woods always wears a red top on the last day of a tournament and he’s the most successful golfer in history. Just last weekend, Bayern Munich won the Champions League, wearing red. Can we say that Liverpool would not have dominated football if they hadn’t started wearing red? Can we say that Tiger Woods would not be the most successful golfer in history if he didn’t wear red on the final day of tournaments? Can we say that Bayern Munich would not have won the Champions League if they were not wearing red? Of course we can’t, however, it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm!

Fake Power

According to Ian, adopting a power pose, a confident stance or taking up the whole couch when we sit down as if we own it, changes our brain chemistry. Interestingly, clenching your right fist has the same effect. So, if you don’t have any real power, fake it until you make it. Clenching your left fist should stop you from “choking” if, for example, you have to take a penalty which you must convert or your team loses.

Power, like success, makes you smarter, more decisive, more confident etc. It increases dopamine levels According to Henry Kissinger it is the most powerful aphrodisiac we have.

The Mystery of the Fish

Had you forgotten? T stands for Territory and NT stands for No Territory. So those fish with territory and probably females to protect have to be bigger, brighter and more aggressive. If a T fish dies and an NT fish happens upon the vacant territory, he will change into a T fish in a matter of 24 hours in order to guard and protect his new found success.

The Oscars

One final interesting point about success – people who win an Oscar live, on average, four years longer than people who are just nominated!