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The difference between winners and losers


Is there a difference between winners and losers? Is there something that just makes some people "winners" in life?

It turns out, there is

Before we get to this, let's take a look at the picture below. This is commonly referred to as the tube test. 

- 2 rats are placed in a single tube. Rats naturally only go forward, unless they are physically forced backwards.

- The 2 forward-moving rats eventually meet at the centre of the tube.
- And this is when a pushing contest develops. The 2 rats start to push each other until one starts pushing the other backwards, all the way out of the tube.

- We call the rat that pushes the other out the winner; the rat that gets pushed out the loser. 

Stay tuned, the exciting bits are coming up. 

test tube dominance.gif

We notice a few things about winners and losers.

  1. winners tend to keep on winning, while losers tend to keep on losing. (There are many, many papers on this, I've attached just one here, for information)

  2. Here you might argue that it has to be something innate about the rats - some are stronger or just have a winning mentality. But this is not true. The experiment has been repeated so many times over the years controlling for many variables. Experimenters had chosen rats from a similar genetic strain, and almost always control for environmental factors like upbringing, food, the cages they were in, the interaction they had before the test, and so on. But the results are very consistent. The biggest determinant of whether a rat wins or not is the results of the previous test.

  3. More importantly, it doesn't matter if the winning or losing outcome is engineered. 

    Experimenters can push a rat from behind, making it the winning rat. And it goes on to display the same winning tendency in subsequent trials. The win doesn't need to come from itself - even if it had a lot of help along the way, or even if it won only because of experimenters' help, it doesn't matter - it becomes a winner. 


  4. These observations on winners and losers have been made for over 30 years. But it is only with recent advances in neuroscience that we've been able to more deeply understand what is happening. This understanding is the crux of this chapter.

    Terrific work by Zhou et al show a major difference between the brains of winners and losers (this paper is worth reading). A specific brain region in the pre-frontal cortex (for those interested, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC)) triggers at the point of competition. If you overstimulate the dorsomedial prefrotnl cortex ( you do so by inducing small amounts of electrical current), losers become winners. Conversely, if you shut this region off (you do so by magnetic scanning), winners become losers.  

    What does this brain region do? Most of the time, stress is debilitating, making us feel troubled and worried, preventing us from taking our next step. This brain region, however, leverages on the stress and agitation created. It redirects this build up so that the animal becomes more compelled to moving forward. (If you're interested in the technicalities, read more in this article)

    It turns out that this forward motion is absolutely critical. When we feel fear or stress, one of the best ways to alleviate it, to feel less fearful and less stressful, is simply to take the next step, the next constructive action moving forward.  Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman explains:

    "When you move forward towards a threat, and it’s not always a physical threat of the sort like a big object coming at you or moving across a narrow beam across heights over between two buildings; it can also be public speaking; it can be confronting an irate boss in an intelligent way, in an adaptive way. But the forward movement itself revealed something really interesting to us - moving forward is a high anxiety, high arousal response. And yet when an animal or a human takes that step forward, it triggers what we call a courage circuit - the activation of the release of a neurochemical called dopamine. We often simply dopamine as a reward mechanism, making us feel good when we do something. But dopamine also tends to reinforce; it changes the structure of neural circuits so that we’re more likely to engage in that behavior again. In part, because it’s desirable, but in part, because the circuit itself gets wired up in a way that it’s more likely to get triggered in the future."


  5. This winning mentality translates to other areas outside the tube-test. It translates to social dominance. If we take 2 rats - one winner and one loser - and put them in a cold enclosure, with just one tiny spot heated up by a table lamp.  The "winning" rat is always the one that gets the best position under the lamp.

So, a few major takeaways from all of us from the understanding of these tube-test experiments. 

  • Winning breeds winning. A previous winning experience is critical for future winning chances. It fundamentally rewires our brain, leveraging on instead of being crippled by stress, to move forward and take action. 

  • But winning can be engineered. Sometimes we win not because we are better than someone else, but we had more help, or more luck, or more resources. 

  • At a broad societal level, this raises all sorts of questions on equality of opportunities. But that's a bigger discussion for another time.

  • More importantly, at an individual level, we can help others we care about "win" by simply believing in them and giving them a figurative push. Similarly, it is so precious to be able to find folks who will do the same for you. 

  • One way for us to overcome our fears or a stressful situation is simply to plan out how to move forward, no matter how small this step is.

Related Links:
How we achieve our most difficult goals

Pre-frontal cortex

Why we should help others when we are stressed

Dopamine - almost always misunderstood

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