The "Winner Effect" and How to Stop It

Across the world scientists have been organizing animal fight clubs to study the Winner Effect. Winning early, easy battles causes animals to become more aggressive, and to win more often against heavily-favored opponents. This effect isn't just psychological; it's associated with physiological changes. And scientists have recently figured out how to reverse the effect.

It turns out that, yes, sports movie montages are true. The perpetual underdogs that we're meant to identify with lose and lose, and it's sad for a good, long time. Then something happens. They've started to win. Sure, they're winning against a weak opponent, but they do win, and suddenly the tables are turned. Once the losers begin to win, they just keep winning, climbing up the ladder until they face an opponent that is much more heavily favored than they are. Filled with confidence and teamwork and inspirational speeches, they take on the champions and win. Cue manly group hug. The end.

That's not fiction. It actually works that way. The Winner Effect has had scientists setting up fights, Don King-style, for years. When an animal is matched against weak opponents for a few matches, it is more likely to win against a stronger opponent afterwards.

These fights come complete with blood tests, because the Winner Effect isn't just a matter of ephemeral concepts like 'practice,' and 'believing in yourself.' Victories come with a spike of adrenaline, progesterone, testosterone, and corticosterone. Which is not to say the Winner Effect resides entirely within. Each animal response to the Winner Effect is different, depending on its nature and its environment. This is why almost every convenient lab animal has been roped into a fight to test the nuances of the affect. The California mouse, a monogamous and territorial animal, has a strong Winner Effect, but only if it's kept in familiar surroundings. When it's fighting another mouse away from its home turf, it doesn't get the same surge of hormones, no matter how much it wins. Meanwhile, the white-footed mouse is a happy wanderer, and like many happy wanderers is, let's say, more free with its affections than the California mouse. It experiences neither a Winner Effect nor a surge in hormones when it wins.

Even crickets have been forced to battle, and their Winner Effect is the most unsettling yet, because scientists have managed to take it away. To be fair, it wasn't as long-lasting with crickets as it was with other animals. Winning crickets only felt the benefit of the effect for about twenty minutes. However, when exposed to epinastine, which blocks the cricket-equivalent of adrenaline, the Winner Effect dropped away. Which is creepier, that biology has perfected a ways to make success turn people into confident serial aggressors, or that people may find a way to negate that confidence?

Image: ShawnC

Via Science Direct, Royal Society, Oxford Journals, and PLoS.