Why Break a World Record?

To make it into Guinness World Records, people have braved extreme conditions, baked any number of jumbo-sized foods, and done extraordinary things to their facial hair. What’s the appeal of being the best at an arbitrary contest?

Ram Singh Chauhan, who holds the record for world's longest mustache, says he hasn't shaved in more than 40 years. (Amit Dave / Reuters)

Earlier this week, Stuart Sobeske, a high-school student from Coldwater, Michigan, finally accomplished the feat he had spent the past six months preparing for: He rode his unicycle up and down a runway at the Coldwater Airport for a little under an hour, and one by one, he solved Rubik’s cubes. Eighty of them, to be exact.

“It felt amazing, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Sobeske told the local-news station WWMT at the end of his ride. His relief wasn’t about finally hopping off his unicycle, though, so much as what would come next: Once the paperwork is filed and the application approved, he will—barring any upsets—have his feat immortalized in Guinness World Records.

The origin story for this particular feat, according to WWMT, is a pretty straightforward one: “Stuart always dreamed of having his name in The Guinness Book of World Records. So he started thinking of things he was good at,” the story said. He was good at unicycling, and also at Rubik’s cubes, and so, by logical extension, “combining these two talents was his ticket to glory.”

Well. Maybe. Glory is kind of a strong word.

Guinness World Records, which turns 60 years old today, is populated with a scattering of recognizable names: There’s Elvis, who even today remains the world’s best-selling solo artist. There’s Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 was the first person to climb Mount Everest. There’s Michael Phelps, who broke eight swimming world records in Beijing in 2008—and, in the process, the record for most gold medals won at a single Olympics.

But all three made it into the book for accomplishments that are generally considered accomplishments in their own right—and in Guinness World Records, that makes them a minority. Surrounding and outnumbering these names are others like Sobeske, people whose accomplishments exist only in relation to the lesser acts that came before them: wearing an extravagant number of socks on one’s foot (record: 152 socks), for example, or catching tennis balls with a bucket on one’s head (record: 48 balls) or drinking a liter of lemon juice through a straw (record: 24.41 seconds).

Before Sobeske, the record for most Rubik’s cubes solved on a unicycle was 28, in 2010. It’s unclear from the Guinness website how many times this particular record has been broken before. But regardless, there now are at least two people in this world who have devoted hours to practicing their unicycling, and turned countless cubes around and around in their hands, in order to reach something that doesn’t bring them money or (in all likelihood) fame.

So what, exactly, does it bring them?

“The thing that motivates the person to win a race or an athletic performance is a mix of motivations similar to what you get in trivial things like setting bizarre records,” said Ian Robertson, a professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and the author of The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure. Human motivation can be sliced and diced into any number of categories—intrinsic versus extrinsic is one example—but one of the more well-known classifications is the “three needs” theory, which breaks motivation into, well, three needs: for achievement, for power, and for belonging.

With something like Guinness World Records, Robertson explained, the need for achievement can push people to pursue success in something, anything—the nature of the skill becomes less important than the fact that it exists at all. “What you have is a burning achievement motivation, and someone maybe just doesn’t see the opportunity to satisfy that achievement in more conventional ways,” he said. “So they find the strange niche.”

But tied up with that achievement motivation, he said, is a bit of the power motivation as well: Setting an obscure record may not win the setter influence or widespread celebrity, but almost everyone who’s been declared “officially amazing” (the Guinness motto) has received the distinction precisely because they took the steps to make sure it became official—to make sure that they were, at the very least, recognized.

And actually securing that recognition, on top of actually breaking whatever record was broken, is a feat in itself: Of the 40,000 to 50,000 applications the company receives each year, only around 5 percent become official world records. Even fewer make it into the book; most of the accepted applications (both to create new records and to break existing ones) go straight into the company’s database.

In a 2008 interview with Freakonomics, Craig Glenday, the Guinness editor, said: “We get ‘chancers’ writing to us on the off-chance that the potato chip they’ve just plucked from a packet is the world’s largest unbroken chip, or that the string of words their young child has spoken is the longest sentence by a 1-year-old, or that their 400 consecutive pogo-stick jumps are a record.” But to pass muster, he explained, a record must be measurable (“so we don’t accept the category for Ugliest Dog,” he said, “but we do accept the claim for the Most Wins of the Ugliest Dog World Championships”), superlative, breakable (with the exception of “significant firsts”), specific, and interesting.

This last qualifier is the one that separates records from simple facts. Technically, daily life is chock-full of world records that pass unnoticed. Out of all the people at The Atlantic’s office, for example, I’m the one who has spent the greatest amount of time sitting at my specific desk: a claim that’s measurable, superlative, breakable if we all switch desks, I guess, and superlative. (And verifiable, another Guinness requirement: They built the desk last month.) But interesting? Not exactly.

But interesting or no, Guinness or no Guinness, we regularly bestow these small, mundane awards upon ourselves, explained Stephen Garcia, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies competition. “People are always trying to find a way to make themselves seem like they’re at the top,” he said. In psychology, the “optimal distinctiveness” theory argues that people walk through their lives on a tightrope between belonging and individuality; the goal is to stand out, but not so much that they lose affiliation in the groups that help to form their identity.

“There’s a need for uniqueness, and I think people cling to that in different ways,” he said. When everyone is searching for their own brand of special, “they might see themselves as being number one in a particular dimension, and they might discount other things.”

For example, a university professor employed by a school towards the middle of the academic hierarchy “could say, ‘Well, I’m at the top school in Michigan,’ or ‘the top school in the Detroit metro area,’” Garcia said. “Any time you create a scale or a dimension that’s measurable, you also create a kind of competition.”

And in fact, the specificity of a competition—how many people can even ride a unicycle, let alone solve a Rubik’s cube while doing so?—may add to its attractiveness. A 2009 study by Garcia and a colleague found that when the number of people engaged in a contest increased, the less motivated each individual participant tended to feel. The effect was especially pronounced among the people leading the pack: “If you’re ranked 202 in something, and I’m 203, we’re both so far from the number-one standard that we’re going to be more cooperative,” Garcia explained. But towards the top, that sense of collaboration disappears: “If you and are I are number two and number three, we’re not going to share with each other, because we don’t want the other person to get ahead.”

The fact that an achievement is niche, in other words, doesn’t lessen the satisfaction that comes from reaching it. From a pure numbers standpoint, the smallest, most obscure competitions—drinking lemon juice, wearing extra socks—may be more winnable, but winning is binary: A person is the best or the most or the fastest, or they aren’t. The appeal of Guinness World Records is the sheer number of ways it allows a person to become those things. It’s the appeal of classifications in general, really. Most people at The Atlantic have been sitting at desks here much longer than I have, but not at mine: life, broken down into arbitrary, win-sized pieces.

“In some ways, I think it’s kind of myopic ... In the grand scheme of things, it’s a little tiny achievement,” Garcia said. “You’re just like a little piece of dust that moves for a tiny bit of time, and then that’s it.” True, but for that tiny bit of time, is any other little piece of dust moving in exactly the same path? Technically, that’s a world record right there.