Neuroscientist and avid blogger Jonah Lehrer recently published a great article in the Wall Street Journal about what he and others call “the superstar effect.” The piece is well timed, seeing as it deals largely with the effect that someone like Tiger Woods has on his competition and Mr. Woods has in fact just returned to harass his competitors for the title of “Most Badass Dude Ever at Golf.” Lehrer describes the work of economist Jennifer Brown, who meticulously studied not just Tiger’s performance in high stakes golf games, but the performance of his peers:
Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of “confounding team dynamics” to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.
Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the “superstar effect” boosted Mr. Woods’s PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.
The reason, Lehrer goes on to explain, is that when faced with such an overwhelming favorite in the odds, people tend to short sell themselves and not give their best performance, as if the outcome is predetermined. And what’s worse is that this need not even take place in our conscious thought to have an effect. And what’s worse than that is the fact that the phenomenon seems to be most potent with more experienced players. Veteran golfers play a good chunk of their game on autopilot, not wasting mental energy over analyzing every tiny movement, angle, or twitch. But when Tiger Woods is on the fairway, they may begin to overthink their strokes, their choices, and their plan –to engage in too much of what psychologists call “action identification.” The result is that they change the way they play and play worse as a result because they’re wasting their finite concentration on things that didn’t need it yesterday. Writer Malcom Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink fame also has a nifty article about this phenomenon, which you can read here.
When we talk about someone “psyching out” the competition, this is what we mean, and it appears to jive with actual scientific research. The WSJ article goes on to discuss how this same phenomenon happens in other competitive environments outside of golf, such as law firms or the executive boardrooms of General Electric, and how it’s especially potent in “winner take all” situations.
…Like, say a game of StarCraft! In the realm of video games, what this all made me think of is the importance of proper matchmaking based on skills and how some games seem to do it a lot better than others. Whenever I jump in to competitive game of Modern Warfare 2, for example, I can’t seem to take four steps without getting owned because everyone else in that game seems to be SO MUCH BETTER than I am. I think many of us have been in a poorly mached game where we round a corner to face the person dominating the top spot on a scoreboard and we just sort of sigh and wait to get headshot rather than try and fight back, especially if we’re squatting at the bottom of the rankings. Halo 3, on the other hand, always seems to group me with people closer to my skill level, and I have a lot more fun and win a lot more matches as a result.
The superstar phenomenon is something that Blizzard seems to be actively trying to avoid in its ranking system for StarCraft II with its bronze, silver, and whatever levels of play and the ability to see the ranking of your opponent. Though not perfect and obviously still being tweaked, the system seems to go to great lengths to match players with opponents of similar skill. So I can be relatively sure that I’m not going to waste time second guessing my build order or metagame because I was matched against Tiger Woods, who in the context of this game would be some Korean dude who has been playing StarCraft for 12 hours a day for the last 10 years.