Playing to Win vs. Playing Not to Lose – Which Leads to Choking Under Pressure?

I remember my dad showing me this picture when I was a little kid, asking me – “What is this a picture of?”

A duck, I said.

He asked if I saw anything else – which didn’t make sense to me, because all there was to see was a duck.

But when I could finally see that it wasn’t just a duck, I wanted to know which one was the “true” image. Was it really a duck that also happened to look like a bunny? Or a bunny that also resembled a duck?

I came to understand that they are both equally true, depending on how we choose to look at the drawing. But what always stuck with me, was the idea that what is “true” to us, depends on our perspective.

Indeed, our perspective can have a significant impact on how we think, feel, and act.

For instance, if I say “Mauritius is a small and insignificant island in the Indian Ocean”, you may have one opinion of Mauritius.

If I say “Mauritius is the largest ocean state in the world”, you may see things a bit differently (via THNK School of Creative Leadership).

Apparently, the same is true of how we see auditions and performances. A recent study suggests that whether we perceive a performance as either a potentially big win or a big loss can impact whether we perform up to our abilities, or “choke” (i.e. perform significantly worse than would be expected) under pressure.

How so?

A simple game…but let’s make this interesting

23 participants were trained in a difficult timed motor task – basically a simple video game where the objective was to guide an uncooperative virtual object (two balls connected by a bouncy spring) into a small square on the screen by moving one’s index finger. They were given 500 practice trials to get the hang of this tricky task.

Then, the following day, they were tested on their ability to successfully get the object into the square – but with some significant financial stakes involved.

Each participant was given $100 to start with, and the opportunity to win up to an additional $100 (for $200 total) or lose their entire $100 and walk away with nothing. They were told that their winnings would be based on just one of their performance trials, and that it would be picked at random, so they should do their best on each trial.

Go for the win or avoid losing?

Before each performance trial, a message would flash on their screen, letting them know what was at stake for that particular trial. Each trial would represent either a potential gain (of $0, $25, $50, $75, or $100 above and beyond their initial funds), or a potential loss (of $0, $25, $50, $75, or all $100 of their starting funds).

Then they had 2 seconds to guide the object into the square.

What’s better?

So….did participants perform better when they were focused on winning? Or on avoiding losing?

Well, it depends.

One group of participants did better when focused on wins. As the amount of money they could win increased (if you succeed, you win $100), their performance improved. But as the amount of money they stood to lose increased (if you fail, you lose $100), they choked.

The other group had the opposite experience.

Instead of doing better when there was more money to win, they did worse. But when there was more to lose (if you fail, you lose $100), their performance actually got better.

What was the difference between the two groups?

Loss aversion.

Loss aversion

Loss aversion is the observation that most of us feel more strongly about losses than we do about gains. As in, finding $40 on the street would be pretty darn cool, but wouldn’t have as much of an emotional impact as, say, having your awesome $40 windproof umbrella swiped from the restaurant’s umbrella rack while eating lunch.

It turns out that we’re all wired differently, and some of us are more loss averse than others. And this loss aversion factor seems to dictate whether the winning or losing frame of reference leads to great performances or crashing and burning.

For those who hate, hate, hate losing more than they like winning (high loss aversion), focusing on what they stand to lose may lead to better performances under pressure. Conversely, thinking about everything they could gain from winning may sabotage their performance.

I don’t think anybody likes losing, but for those who can get over it more quickly and are more motivated by the feeling of winning (low loss aversion), framing the situation as one in which there is much to gain may help prevent choking, while dwelling on what they stand to lose may disrupt performance.

Take action

When approaching auditions or performances, do you find yourself focusing more on “winning” or what you’re seeking to gain? Or do you tend to focus more on what you stand to lose if you do poorly?

Which have you found most helpful? Maybe neither?

The authors note that the results, while suggestive, need to be explored in greater depth before we can confidently apply them to performance more broadly. I’m intrigued, but at the moment, I suspect most sport psychologists would recommend avoiding thoughts of gains/losses altogether in the moment of performance.

After all, we don’t have direct control over “wins” and “losses” in music any more than we do in sports. We can’t give ourselves the contract for the principal job, send ourselves a note from the admissions committee at our first-choice school, or write ourselves a glowing review in the NY Times.

As such, our attention is best placed on things we actually control, like what we choose to focus on in the moment of a performance, trusting that if we control the controllables to the best of our ability, everything else will work out as well as it possibly could, given the circumstances.

Additional reading

Cool article on the value of reframing on creativity:

And more on the neurological underpinnings of this research on loss aversion and choking:

photo credit: rich_w via photopin cc

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5 Responses

  1. Very interesting article. I am wondering how exactly one can figure out whether you love winning more than hate losing? On the one hand, it’s a good feeling to experience playing or performing well, of course. On the other hand, the negative thoughts of playing badly and making a fool of oneself (loss aversion) can also be very powerful. How do you measure which attribute is dominant?

    1. The researchers used a gambling-type task to determine each participant’s loss aversion, where they had a choice between a certain guaranteed payout and a riskier, but more lucrative payout. Based on their responses to 140 such choices of varying amounts and probabilities, they were able to gauge their degree of loss aversion.

      Sort of like, if I said I’d flip a coin, and if it was heads, I’d have to pay you $20, but if it were tails, you’d have to pay me $20, most folks wouldn’t feel so comfortable with that arrangement. Some would want to be in a position to receive $40 or $50 or $100 in order to risk losing $20.

    2. Having just had a high-pressure performance yesterday for an influencer and patron of my business, I was really working through the best way to think about it all week long. This article is a perfect way of summing up the entire process I went through. What I think will help most clearly identify the issue for you is using the same skill we musicians use all the time … listening. All week long I was shifting focus from what I stood to gain vs. what I stood to lose and tormenting myself as a result. Then rehearsing the day before, I realized that I can’t control the outcome, all I can do is to stay in the moment and focus on what I can control (dynamics, feel, tempo, etc.). I couldn’t have done that had I been ignoring and even denying thoughts that wanted me to focus on outcomes that were out of my control. Listening is a skill that must be developed and the further we “ascend” the performance ladder, the more we need to lean on the skill of listening to our own internal thoughts that so often slip by unnoticed.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I could really use the tips as I am entered in a songwriting contest that’s extremely important and don’t know if I will win and will need all the help I can get to not be devastated if it doesn’t work out. Great post. Please keep doing what you are doing. It’s making a difference in this world. 🙂

    1. A colleague once told me a story of a huge audition she was taking, and how before her audition, she had already made plans for what she was going to do that night. Win or lose, she knew exactly who she was going to hang out with, where she was going to go, I think even how much she was going to drink (though she may have been joking), etc.

      The idea being, whether things work out or not, she knew that the sun would still rise in the east, she would still have to take out the kitty litter, and her friends and family would still love her just the same. Sure, it can be devastating to not have things turn out the way we want, and our lives can certainly change dramatically for the better when the chips fall our way, but then again some things (what some might ultimately consider to be the really big things) will always be there for us, win or lose.

      Oh, and she won the audition, by the way.

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