Why Your Nemesis Psychs You Out

Sometimes people on the rise only inspire you to do worse.

A man looks at a pack of bicyclists during the Tour of Spain in 2005.
Dani Cardona / Reuters

In the jostling among Democrats to be the party’s 2020 presidential nominee, Elizabeth Warren has steadily climbed through the polls. Occasionally the Massachusetts senator has even caught up to Joe Biden, the former vice president and the consistent front-runner. The lengths Warren has gained were perhaps clearest in a Democratic presidential debate a few weeks ago, when many candidates spent most of their energy attacking Warren—and thereby positioning her as the de facto leader.

It’s not that Warren was polling much better than Biden was at that point. Instead, she had an elusive factor that politicians, business owners, and other competitive types crave: momentum. With positive buzz around her and her poll numbers generally ticking up, Warren was seen as the one to beat, even though she might not have been solidly ahead.

If other Democratic candidates have been getting nervous about Warren’s march forward, they have at least one good reason to be: their own psychology. It’s tempting to think that fear of an opponent gaining power would inspire competitors to up their game, but often the opposite is the case. New research shows that facing people who appear to have positive momentum has a way of getting inside your head. Even if they aren’t objectively better than you, their rise can feel unstoppable.

For a recent paper, researchers from Duke University, London Business School, and NYU conducted six studies across a variety of sports and other domains. In one study, the authors found that chess players had a lower chance of winning if their opponents had recently moved up in ranks. The more momentum an opponent had, the less likely a player was to win. In another study, the researchers analyzed nearly 60,000 professional tennis matches. They found that as an opponent gains momentum, a player’s chances of winning drop from 52 percent to 38 percent.

The likely reason this happens, the researchers determined, is not simply that opponents gaining momentum are always rapidly getting better at winning. Instead, the researchers found that players tended to expect opponents with momentum to keep rising. The players, in other words, seemed to be anticipating their own failure. In a parallel scenario involving two competing watch brands, study participants expected a middling brand moving up in a fictitious ranking to eventually overshadow a luxury watch brand that was ranked higher and showed no sign of movement. It was almost as though mediocre things are given a boost if they’ve recently gone from “bad” to “just fine.”

Part of the reason momentum alone exerts such an influence seems to be that as we see the status of an opponent jumping up, we are struck by a fear of the opponent’s unpredictability. Wait, this person was supposed to always be third! Why is she suddenly second? What else might she be capable of? We also tend to extrapolate rules from our physical world onto our social lives, says Hemant Kakkar, the lead author of the study and a management professor at Duke University. Objects in motion stay in motion—and so, we think, people who are scooping up every promotion in sight will continue to do so for eternity. Evolutionarily, people are wired to pay attention to things that move, Kakkar added. To our caveman ancestors, after all, it might have been a tiger or snake, rather than a new co-worker, encroaching on us.

There are so many contexts in which momentum can play its mind games. Kakkar says you might see this effect among employees in any number of industries who are ranked and scored based on their performance or sales figures, or among start-ups that compete to generate positive attention and garner funding from venture capitalists. Jennifer Carson Marr, a business professor at the University of Maryland, previously found that people appraise otherwise-equally-ranked things—universities, trivia leagues, workers—as being better when they’ve recently ascended, rather than descended, in status. Think of how appealing a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that finally gets a Michelin star is compared with a famed steakhouse that has lost its luster.

It’s not just our opponent’s momentum that gets in our head either. Marr has also found that high-flying people tend to perform worse themselves if they’ve recently lost status in the eyes of their peers. The “hot hand” phenomenon, in which a player who does well will keep doing well, is still debated in psychology, but Marr speculates that performing well can have effects on your own motivation, too.

All this research serves to emphasize that status isn’t, well, static. People improve and get worse all the time in whatever environment they’re in, and those trajectories themselves have an impact on others. Someone isn’t simply “respected and admired in a group, and it just stays that way forever,” Marr says. Instead, “I might make mistakes. New people come to the group. The way I behave influences the status that I have in the eyes of others … Those changes in status have very real consequences.”

Thankfully, not all is lost if you’re surrounded by a bunch of up-and-coming stars at work. In their new paper, Kakkar and his co-authors also examined the best way to deal with the threat of a rival’s momentum. When they told participants in one study that a clerical error might have caused an opponent’s momentum measurements to be wrong, the participants felt less threatened and lowered their expectations for that opponent’s future rank. In another study, participants who wrote about their own strengths also felt less threatened. In essence, the ways to avoid being psyched out by another person’s momentum are to tell yourself that you’re good, too, or to tell yourself that the other person is actually not that great.

That might be especially good advice if you, like me, are highly competitive, but nevertheless a little bit insecure. (There’s a name for people like us: “insecure overachievers.” We’d display our trophies, but they’re really not much to look at.) I, for one, would much rather take on the same topic as a journalist who has been widely but evenly renowned for years rather than one who has only recently become the darling of Twitter. I don’t like the idea that there are some people who will always be moving one step ahead of me, that I can never catch up. Whenever I’m at a gathering with a writer who seems to have rapidly become a star, I want to slither under the table, coil into a ball, and just stay there, softly murmuring “Sorry,” until everyone forgets I’m there.

Every time I complain to my mentor, a veteran journalist, that a rival of mine got something—such as an assignment or a grant—that I desperately wanted, he’ll say something like, “It’s nothing; keep going.” (Or as Marr put it, in somewhat of an easier-said-than-done way, “Focus on doing the best that you can in a particular situation and try to worry less about the experiences other people have had in the past.”)

Other people’s momentum isn’t nothing. But it can be helpful to believe that it is.