in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #268: How the Science of Competition Can Make You a Better Man

What if I told you that there’s a performance-enhancing drug that’s completely free, completely legal, and has no ill side-effects when used correctly? Oh, and you’ve probably already taken it many times in your life.

Competition is that drug, and today on the show I talk to author Po Bronson about his book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, which digs deep into the science of competition and how it can improve our performance in a wide variety of tasks.

In today’s podcast, Po and I discuss the difference between adaptive and maladaptive competition, the culture of virtuous competition that existed amongst the ancient Greeks, and how you can shape competition to make you a better man in all aspects of your life. 

Show Highlights

  • Competition’s PR problem
  • The link between testosterone and competition
  • The important difference between adaptive competition and maladaptive competition
  • Competition in ancient Greece
  • The benefits of competition (hint: it’s not just about winning something)
  • The first scientific studies on competition
  • What an Air Force Academy study on freshman dropout rates can teach us about competition
  • The differences between men and women when it comes to competition
  • The relationship between risk and competition
  • Why you should think about smaller competitive pools in order to be more successful
  • The biological processes happening in the midst of competition
  • How competition is wired into our genes (and also how those genes don’t define how you’ll do in competitive situations)
  • Stress and competition
  • How to make the most — and get the most — out of competition

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover, top dog by Po bronson and Ashley merryman.

Top Dog provides a lot of insights on how you can use competition to become a better man. The sections on the genetics of competition and how it influences testosterone are particularly interesting. Grab your copy today!

Connect With Po Bronson

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. What if I told you there’s a performance enhancing drug that’s completely free, completely legal, it has no ill side effects when used correctly? Oh, and you’ve probably already taken it many times in your life. That drug is competition. Today on the show I talk to author Pro Bronson about his book Top Dog. That digs deep into the science of competition, and how it can improve our performance in a wide variety of tasks, and today’s podcast Po and I discuss the difference between adaptive and maladaptive competition. That’s good and bad competition. The culture of virtuous competition that existed amongst the ancient Greeks, and how you can shape competition to make you a better man in all aspects of your life. A really interesting show. After the show is over, check out the show notes at Po Bronson welcome to the show.

Po Bronson: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: You coauthored a book a few years ago called Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, which is all about the research about what competition, how it influences performance, what it does to our biology, or psychology. Let’s start off with this, because you argue in the book that competition has all these enormous benefits that come with improving performance, but it seems like these day’s competition has sort of PR problem, and there’s this ethos in public schools, and in public life that cooperation beats competition. Why does competition seem to have this PR problem, these days?

Po Bronson: The fact that it has a PR problem is a lot of why we were motivated to work on the book in the first place. We felt a significant disconnect between what the scientific research was saying, and this default thinking about competition. One of the things that is there is just, is we wanted to emphasize throughout our society that teamwork is important, and we recognize that the kids that we’re educating are going to have to grow up and work largely in teams, not all of them, but the vast majority of them, we’ve also kind of misread why children misbehave and we think that superiority rings of competition, and we just, it didn’t parse these things correctly. Just for the most fundamental aspect, think of I this way, what’s the most famous example? It would be you’re on a sports team, you’re competing, while you’re cooperating. Right? When you’re on a team working for your company, what are you doing? You’re competing with other companies in the marketplace. Your team is up against other teams. Cooperation and teamwork are integral to competition, not divergent from competition.

In fact, just to delve quickly into the science, we fundamentally get this wrong, that the hormone of cooperation is actually the very same hormone, the one of competition, which is testosterone, and there’s this great study where these neuroscientists would have women come into the lab, and they would play economic type games where you can either, at a certain point in the game, share the winnings with your partner, or steal all the winnings at the end of this little economic game. Before they played these women were told, they’d be given a little flask, and drink it, and they would be told, “You’ve either been given a testosterone, or you’ve been given this other chemical that we’re not going to tell you, yet.”

After they played, they asked the women what did they think? We played a certain way, you stole from your opponent, or you shared with your opponent, what hormone do you think you were given? The women who stole from their opponent, they all assumed, “I must have been given testosterone.” The women who shared with their opponent said, “I must have been given this magical chemical. What is it? I really want it.” In fact, it was exactly the other way around. The women who had been given testosterone shared with their opponent. The women who stole from their opponent had actually just been given a placebo, they were given nothing.

That testosterone was driving cooperation, not stealing from your opponent, because to be a good teammate in a competitive setting you’ve really got to be fine tuned to this, and as they do these studies of college soccer teams and they rate them on 15 matrix assessments for how good are they at really a team player, do their eyes glance over their shoulder, and spot their team, and how do they modulate the tone of their voice to communicate well, and they also check testosterone levels as they rise and vary from a day before the competition, to pre-competition, to during the competition, to after. What they found is that the athletes whose testosterone goes up, are better team players, not, and it’s just we have this thing dead wrong.

I’ll let you ask me a question, again, Brett. Sorry to rip off there, but I care a lot about this, and it bums me out that we just have this point of view that is just wrong. It’s not just wrong philosophically wrong, or analytically wrong, it’s scientifically wrong, biologically wrong.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting, I think it’s counterintuitive for a lot of people. Like you said, most people think testosterone is this sort of rage inducing hormone that makes you selfish and overly aggressive, but the research indicates otherwise, and we’ll get more into the physiology of competition, including testosterone, and some of the other neurotransmitters and hormones that are involved in the competitive process. Do you think that another reason why there’s a PR problem with competition is that we are using the word competition to define two types of competition? I think, in the book you talk about there’s adaptive competition and maladaptive competition.

Po Bronson: Yeah. That’s a really good insight, Brett. We use one word to describe two different things, and we don’t parse them and separate them. We do understand, we have this bet, we have this term for what is being a bad sport mean? Its we recognize these differences, but we think that its the most fundamental to competition, certain competitions can give rise to lots of cheating. Certain competitions can give rise to poor performance. The vast majority of competition, especially if it’s well structured gives rise to increased performance to good sportsmanship.

The ancient Greeks, Ashley, my coauthor and I, we’re kind of just fascinated because we were just brainstorming, we were like, what is ancient Greece known for? It’s known for two things, it’s known for the Olympics, and it’s known for giving us democracy. Then, we were like, I wonder is there a connection between those two in any way? They both seem to be ancient Greece, ancient Greece was a certain period of time, so we looked it up. Interestingly, the ancient Olympics were at first a religious festival, and truce was part of this, because to travel across each others lands they needed to have a truce, and they came together, and as it grew in its popularity in these different sultans and kings of difference regions would come to attend this religious ceremony it began to be a clash in who gets to light that fire that starts this religious ceremony?

The decided we’ll have foot race, it was a 200 yard long foot race. Everybody put up their best athlete to race in this foot race, and somebody won. Then, this religious festival slowly merged into what we know as the Olympics. As the Olympics ensued, it wasn’t just the athletes who went to Athens to compete, it was actually a whole posy. Right? Like, the king and his philosophers, and his poets, and slaves, and his warriors who, the warriors were often the people who were the athletes, and they would come a month ahead of time, and they would train, they would train for the Olympics.

All these philosophers and poets were hanging out, and they were watching these athletes transform their bodies through training, and as they watched it they began to think and discuss amongst each other, you know, it’s interesting because we have this philosophy of say, somebody from an upper cast, or an upper class person is better than a lower class person, but look at this lower class soldier, who’s transforming his body, maybe we have this wrong, maybe you can transform your mind. Maybe these people ought to have a voice, they ought to have essentially a vote. In this way the origins of democracy were exactly fostered in that month of training for the Olympics. That the Olympics gave rise to democracy itself.

They loved good sportsmanship. The Greeks were already always into these games and little competitions with checkers, and bones, and card games, and variations of that kind of stuff. They loved these sports, and there are these famous statues that, they’re kind of gone now, but you can find photos of them that are sort of replicas, they were called the Zanes, and there were some wrestlers that cheated, and they rigged matches in about the 400 BC, or something like that, and the ancient Greeks immortalized those wrestling cheaters with statues outside of the Olympic stadium. They stood there for a thousand years or so before they sort of fell, but imagine that, imagine if rather than debating whether somebody was to get into say our baseball hall of fame, or football hall of fame, instead we actually immortalized them as cheaters outside of the hall of fame. They got a spot at the hall of fame, just on the outside. The ancient Greeks really understood this differs between adaptive and maladaptive competition. It was deeply imbued into their philosophy, and they had specific different words for both types, and we’ve lost that as a society, today.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s interesting, too. You highlight in the book, they didn’t just compete over sports, they competed at the Olympics there was poetry competitions, or oratory competitions. Even their political process was competitive you try to joust to be the best, and there was competition people judged each other by that, but in the end they sort of produced this sort of flourishing they would call it, this excellence, because of it.

Po Bronson: Right. The goal of competition was not winning, itself. Competition was a process that makes you better. To be clear it’s not just, and when we say that even listeners might go, “Hey. Wait a minute. What?” Think about it calmly here, competition makes us better. The first ambiguous ingredient is that training. Right? Knowing that people have to compete they train, and they get better through the training even if in the actual event itself they may do well or do poorly. Just to bring that back to say where we started is kids in our modern society, scholars have begin to study things like say math competitions, and what they found is that even kids whose parents sign them up for the math contest, or the math club, and they don’t like math, but their parents sort of forced them to do it, come out of it really enjoying it, and learning way more math than they would have in regular class.

It’s largely because it’s a team environment, your part of a team, you don’t want to let your team down, so your inanition to your intrinsic drive to say, be good at math, which they may not have. They have this social drive to support their team, and not let their team down. They train. They get better. Even if in that moment of competition they don’t win, or whatever they still come away with a really good experience, and they don’t feel like a loser because they lost, they’re very aware that they got a lot better.

In fact the scholars who’ve been doing this research have begun to look across all sorts of other competitions in schools, and there is quite a significant movement, a kin to say how startups, startup competitions have weekend long accelerators, where you have a challenge, and over the course of the weekend you come up with ideas, and draw on resources, and by Sunday you make pitches, and some people get funding. In a similar way this sort of gamified academic competitions are really successful, and most interestingly, and most effectively they’re used in actually driving the teaching of creativity.

In the science of creativity, we’re learning that yes, some peoples brains are more naturally adapted to it than others, just like a basketball player might, it helps to be tall in basketball, but everybody can get better at basketball, and everybody can get better at being creative, and it especially means to not just teach it as an art from, but to teach creativity in the sciences and to teach it in history classes and use competitions. Sort of short-term academic competitions are really successful at driving up motivation, engaging young learners, and getting students to really internalize what they’re learning. Have some drive. Not that you want to do it every day, but it really works.

I think the key thing here about competition is to understand that some of the difference between short-term and long-term competition, you know, competition is stressful. Long-term stress is maladaptive, it hurts you, whereas your down, it destroys a lot of the hormones that your body needs, but short-term competition where you train and prepare, and then you have a stressful period of time where you’re competing. Performance stress can be good for you and can actually help your performance, and then you have rest and recuperation after. This is really important. Training, competition, rest, and recuperation. If you never let people rest, endless competition is bad for them, but training, competing, and resting as a cycle is really effective at driving performance and engaging.

Brett McKay: I think, from what you just said, if we can kind of get an idea, kind of refine what adaptive competition and maladaptive competition looks like. It sounds like adaptive competition is process focused. It’s focused on the training that you are going to get better through the process. Maladaptive competition is primarily focused on winning, or losing?

Po Bronson: And, not providing rest and recuperation.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Po Bronson: And, not allowing that phase of training, where people can create a problem solved, there’s strategies where they can improve they’re skillsets that will be drawn upon in the competition. Look, I can with my brothers start washing the dishes at our summer house, and next thing you know it turns into a competition, and it’s fun. Right? When we were kids and we would do that it can get out of hand. There’s no skill building. Competition can breakout-

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Po Bronson: Anywhere, anytime. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, or it’s bad. I don’t know that we’re obsessed with that, I think what we’re thinking about here is what is the proper role of competition in, especially our children’s lives where we’re most protected, and also long-term in our regular sort of working lives.

Brett McKay: It sounds like in ancient Greece, and most of humanity is has kind of intuitively understood how competition can improve performance, but it wasn’t until the 19th century where we started getting scientific about it. Can you tell us about the study that the guy did with, I think, it was a rowing machine back in the 1800’s where he found that yeah competition can actually help improve some individual’s performance.

Po Bronson: Right. The very first scientific study is this guy Triplett and he created this, it’s a rowing machine where you didn’t pull on an ore, you sort of rotated this thing in a circle. He tried to come up with a unique physical contest that nobody had a pre-skill, nobody was already good at, no one was naturally doing this motion. He tested all sorts of people on this, competing, pushing themselves as hard as they could, and what Ashley and I got drawn to, especially was the work he did on children, and he found that sure enough, you know, if you ask a child to go as fast as you can, push yourself, drive yourself, they would do pretty good, but if you put them in competition with another person, they would do even better, for the most part, but not everybody.

Brett McKay: Has this research been replicated?

Po Bronson: This type of research has been replicated, the premise of it, thousands of times in thousands of different ways in every dimension of our life. How do people do in competition versus how do they do by just driving themselves? We’re this body of science and say where did we go wrong as a society and interpreting this was you’ll always see some kids who up in a competition they do poorly, they don’t like it. It’s not working for them, and they do far worse than they would be if they just drove themselves.

There was this kind of moral judgement to say, well, competition is bad, rather than looking more acutely, or more granularity, what are all these studies saying about when does competition lead to poor performance? It’s a subset of the results. Why is it happening? What are the conditions? It typically seems to be some form of maladaptive competition, but the most fundamental rule here of all, the one that all of the studies show is that what works is when it’s a far contest.

When say, going back to those two kids on this rotating rowing machine, that when one kid was up against another kid who is just flat out better, and faster, and the kid who wasn’t as good felt like she had no chance, she couldn’t beat this person, then she would crumble. Interestingly the person was really good, unchallenged, coasted. Both of them would do worse, but across all of this body of research when people feel like it’s a fair contest they tend to do really, really do improve. There’s a study about the Air Force Academy that, can I tell people about this?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Po Bronson: I think-

Brett McKay: No. I was hoping you’d bring it up.

Po Bronson: Here’s a modern example of this, really interesting one, at the Air Force Academy, maybe about six years ago, to even to get into the Air Force Academy it’s one of our top institutions, and you need to get a letter of recommendation from a congress person, or administrative person, and you have to have good grades, but even then there are students there, young cadets, who don’t survive. They drop out. Across the board in the military their strategy has been of late, like, you know, we used to be proud of the fact that we’d cut kids and they would drop out, but now they realize we need everyone of these good kids we can get, and we need to stop these mechanisms that disempower them, we want to find a way to help them all be really good cadets, really good future soldiers, really good people in our society.

These economists had this idea, and they wanted to use these comparative effects, this social effect, and they had this idea, to me, I call it the Jay Edmark effect, because when I was in ninth grade, in eighth grade, there was this kid Jay Edmark, and he was my friend and his mom, whenever I would go over to his house, she was always asking him to hangout with Po, because I was a good student, and he wasn’t a good student. She kept figuring I would rub off on him, and all of my good habits would rub off on him, so a similar idea was conceived at the Air Force by these economists who were consulting with the Air Force Academy, and they created these platoons, these groups of 30 incoming freshman.

They paired up half of these little platoons were students who were at risk, because they were on the bubble, and maybe not succeeding, once they got there. They paired them up with really high performing young cadets, and they thought that just by living in the same dorm, by eating together, by studying together, by training together that the high performers rub off on the low performers. They thought this was going to be this magic social effect. The school year went on and they started to see some problems right away, and they got worried, but it was an economic experiment, and they were measuring it and doing it, and by the end of the year they were like, uh-oh we messed up.

The low performers had not been rubbed off on by the high performers, they had that girl who was doing the rowing machine, who collapsed and crumbled, they had withdrawn from the high performers. They would eat together, but they’d go to the other end of the table. They would study together, but they’d go to a different part of the library. They had moved their bunks, they had sort of protected themselves from this, and less comparison from whom they could not really compete. It was not a fair contest, and they pulled away. Unfortunately the Air Force had already seeded, essentially next years dorms, if you will, so they actually did this for two years, and the second years results were just like the first years.

The reason we know about this study, because you know failed studies, well they never appear in the press, or they never appear in the journals, but was that, essentially afterwards, in order to create these dorms of high performers and low performers they had to take out the middle performers, and they put all the middle performers, you know, in their own dorms, and in their own troupes. What they found over there when they looked at them, almost as an afterthought was that they had done really well, as middle performers over the course of that first year of their freshman studies.

All of them, had a fair contest at any given day, they could outperform each other, because through focus and hard work, and extra effort, and so there was almost a sense that on a daily basis you could outshine your competitors by applying drive, and hard work, and concentration, and as a result they had pushed each other up to the level of the high performers. All of them. That essentially the lesson here is fair contests where kids literally experience that capacity, we can say forever, it’s all about hard work, son, you just got to try, or as I’ve famously, had written in Nurtureshock in New York Magazine years before, praising children to call attention to the role of hard work.

You can talk until you’re blue in the face, you actually have to give kids a chance to experience it. That chance is where they literally are kind of like just about even with the other people around them, but if they try harder, they’re like, “Dads been saying this for a long time. Maybe I’ll try it, this hard work stuff.” It works. They make that sort of intrinsic internal connection that it’s hard work stuff that everyone is always talking about actually can help you.

Brett McKay: That’s really, some great insights there about being mindful about the competitions you place yourself in, or your kids in. I mean, it doesn’t have to be like has to apply to formal competition, but let’s say you’re trying to improve, I don’t know, in your physical fitness in some capacity, you don’t want to partner up with a really super fit guy, you want to find someone who is maybe just a little bit better than you, or about the same, and use him as sort of the benchmark, and that could allow you to see some progress in your life.

Po Bronson: Yeah. The studies say that, yes, that such pairing will give both people, you know, a fair chance, and both sides will drive each other to more success. If you’re paired up with a weightlifting buddy, or something, you know, there can be other things there. Right? I mean, it’s like you may not really be competing your just supporting each other, and you got to put in the work, and stuff. People tend to improve in both situations, it’s just that when you pair yourself with someone whose sort of your equal, your comrade in arms in some sense, your partner in this, then you get more benefits than any other situation.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, were there any differences between how female cadets, or male cadets, or similar studies like it, and how men and women respond differently to these differences and skill level in terms of competition?

Po Bronson: At the time, the Air Force Academy was bout 20% women, and it’s going up, and there were no differences there in that situation, but again that is a self selected group. Right? There is an enormous body of research around competition and it’s effect on men and women that are divergent. I just want to predicate this carefully, because I will kind of give away the ending, which is that these differences between men and women are in fact not really that they’re a male, or that they’re a female, it’s just that certain biological terroristic, more commonly appear in males, and less commonly in females, but they still appear both in males and females.

Where we want to start is with a gene variation called the COMT gene, C-O-M-T, and it codes enzymes that clears dopamine from the synapses in your brain, and most of our brain we have these dopamine clears, these janitors that come in and clean up everything, but in the prefrontal cortex, which evolved most recently for our brains, we don’t have the usual mechanism we have this sort of substitute teacher, or substitute janitor, and has to come in and do this stuff. What it does is it actually biologically explains the phenomenon. That some people perform poorly under stress, and other people actually need the stress to perform their best, that they actually don’t turn it up until the night before the paper is done, or I got to make that presentation, tomorrow.

The sort of thing that we naturally feel, and become aware of in our own lives that some people kind of almost crave this stress, and they don’t do a good job until the stress is there. This is actually the mechanism for that. What’s happening is depending on your gene variation, you can have a perfect level of dopamine in your prefrontal cortex in non-stressful situations, but when stress happens that juices up. Other people, and this is the other half of society are people who chronically have too low of dopamine in their prefrontal cortex, and during stress that dopamine level goes up, now to optimal level, so your brain actually works better under stress.

Now, that’s really cool, and that’s a big parenthetical, because I want to bring it back to men and women. Right? Actually estrogen, down regulates this COMT gene, so it’s especially true that as estrogen cycles over a course of a month, it interacts acts with this. What it can mean is that biologically women can have more of the behaviors of, sort of the fundamental default of essentially having too much dopamine, they’re flooded with dopamine, and their brains don’t work as well under stress. Again, this is based on genotypes,

So it’s all related to the geno types, and this is not true of all women, there is many other social factors that affect men and women. What they find this is really interesting a sort of consequence is that this also effects essentially how rational peoples brains are a different times. All these studies show that female financial analysts on Wall Street studying literally every single financial estimate made by an analyst for 20 years, on every single stock in every single industry show that female financial analysts are on average about 8% better than male financial analysts.

Women are better at seeing the risks that men are. Men are better at ignoring the risks. This even relates to say when we know as a society we want far more women to run for office, so what the study slowly, the science is teased out because they look at every state, and who campaigns in these states they look at judges, and races, and these scholars do a really good job looking at all this stuff. What they find is that women when they see that the odds are winning are poor they don’t enter the race. When they see the odds of winning are possible, and not even great, but just possible, they enter the race more than men do. Men are really good at ignoring the odds.

Men are willing to say, people say, “There’s no chance she’ll win,” they’re like, screw it, I’m entering anyway. That’s a classic guy response. We heroize that, but it actually comes down to this fundamental biology about how we assess risk. What makes a race most, what’s the one thing that changes a race from you kind of not having a chance to having a chance? It’s whether there is an incumbent in place. Incumbents tend to win political races about 90% of the time in the United States across all categories. When the incumbent, incumbents are no longer running you’ll see far more women in a race, because they’re judging that they have a chance.

Men will enter races regardless of the odds of winning. This is kind of interesting, you cannot hear this stuff without thinking how does that effect startup culture, or startups? Where the odds of succeeding in a start up might be one in three, or one in 10 to get a 10 X return, the fact that women are smarter about this may be a factor influencing essentially the supply of female entrepreneurs. I’m not saying that’s permanent by any means, it’s not permanent by a long shot, but it is about culture and support. People need to understand that they have a chance. Otherwise, they’ll evaluate these on their own.

Brett McKay: It’s really interesting. I’m curious. I mean, I understand that being risk sensitive can play out long, but are there any advantages for being risk naïve, because I mean obviously men have it, we’ve had it for hundreds of thousands of years, there’s has to be a benefit to it, or else we wouldn’t have it. What is the adaptive reason why men are risk naïve?

Po Bronson: Again, I want to be careful about over generalizing here-

Brett McKay: Sure.

Po Bronson: Because I know this is the Art of Manliness, but at this point it’s important to say that when we say men are this women are this, we should probably stop at this point, because there are plenty of female entrepreneurs, and so that’s basically what I’m talking about, here, is a phenomenon that on average men this, and on average women that. For any particular male or female one, third of women have this capacity to essentially ignore risk, and two, thirds of men. Okay? This capacity to sort of try it anyway, and believing yourself, and grind it out, and just prove the odds, that’s something that two, thirds of men and one, third of women have. Biologically.

This accurate risk sensitivity is a biological construct that two, third of women have and one, third of men. It’s interaction of certain genes, it’s actually bizarrely this is actually something that is wired in at fetus stage at about two months into the fetal cycles. Those same hormones that act upon that deep part of the brain, and spinal cord, and they also do other things, so literally they impact, those same hormones impact how long your fingers are. You can do studies that measure the length of fingers among Italian entrepreneurs and you’ll find that the one, third of the entrepreneurs are women and they all have a finger length set of traits as do the men that is something that is established two months into their fetal development.

Brett McKay: This is the 2D:4D ratio, right?

Po Bronson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Another aspect of thinking about or being intentional about competition is the size of the competitive pool. I think you highlighted research where you found that as the competitive pool increases the competitive drive decreases in people, because it make sense, there’s more people in there, there’s a less of a chance that you can win. I’m curious, I mean, this is I think an important thing to think about in our globalized hyper connected economy where we’re hypothetically competing now with millions of other people. Not just in your state, or even in your country, but around the world. How do you maintain that competitive fire in such a large competitive pool? I mean, I can see a lot of people saying, “Well, it’s not even worth trying, just kind of be mediocre my life, because there’s no way I can beat those startups in India, or China, or Silicon Valley.”

Po Bronson: Yeah. Or, think of those who have taken the ACT, or SAT listeners who have had that, largely have had that experience and if you sit there going, you get through that test, and you’re like, “Man. Every student in the country is taking this test, today. I have to compete against all of them,” it’s really demotivating. It demotivates you and has certain biological consequences both in the long-term and the short-term. Right? Even in the short-term, just thinking that way will tune up your brains fear networks, it will tune down your brains reward networks, it will tweak the ratio of neuro adrenaline to adrenaline, which is to perform you want to get a really certain ratio there.

It will affect your blood pressure. It will affect your vasoconstriction. Vasodilation, and your bodies capacity to sort of convert fuel into energy. Just by thinking about it differently, and then you’ll suffer poor performance just because you think of it that way. You know what works? Taking the ACT, or SAT, what works is to say, is to challenge a friend, or challenge a cousin, or challenge somebody else. To say, “Hey. You and I are going to compete, we both took that test, we both did okay, we’re going to see who can improve their score by more,” and if you focus your competition, you can improve.

In our landscape of our globalized world, that same mechanism works. That you want to focus your efforts on beating so and so. Startups work because they are quickly in a space where there are a lot, just like there’s always coming out of Hollywood two movies about Mars at the same time. Two movies about the White House blowing up at the same time. You know, you’re like startups are in the same way, there’s startups in your space, and you’re competing with them, and if you focus your efforts on them, you tend to do really well.

One of the most fascinating industries where we saw this pattern was in Italy. The industry that makes, not packages, but they make the machinery that makes packaging. The way we get pharmaceuticals, the way we get blister packs, or the clamshells around cell phones, I mean, all these things have been invented as this new packaging. They come from all these newfangled packaging machines. If you turn back the clock 15 years, Germany really dominated the packaging machine industry, and Italy was a much smaller player, but in this very small region of Italy, outside Bologna there are about 200 packaging machines, and they’re not all competing with each other. Inside that industry where there is 200 packaging machine companies, and they make these huge machines that are the size of a room that cost $400,000.00, but the will churn out all sorts of modern packaging.

In cosmetics, there’s four companies, and they know who each other are, and they are fiercely competitive. They can go to dinner in Bologna, and they can be like, “Yeah. There’s the guy who just came up with that new thing that the machine can do, and that everybody is buying it and it’s great.” Through intense local rivalries, people in those companies were passionate, knowledgeable, their status was at stack, and they drove themselves to succeed by emphasizing local rivalry. In the process they went from being a small player in this global market to the dominant player in this global market.

It is important to think less globally when you’re competing, instead to think more about whose your rival. Think of sports, look at Nike, and Adidas are rivals and they’re pushing each other, and their doing great, while through that rivalry while other companies like Fila, and stuff have sort of had to step aside. In sports, we see historic rivalries that pushed teams to sort of figure out how to get better. How to reach that next level. The lesson for us is to sort of think locally, here. Think more about our rivals. Think about our direct competitors.

Brett McKay: All right. I think there’s really two good insights we’ve hit, so far. The first one was if you’re going to compete make sure the competition level is at a parody. Right?

Po Bronson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You don’t want to compete with someone to high. Then, also you want to narrow your field of competition, if you had to do that psychologically. Right? Instead of thinking about every kid in America is taking the SAT, or I’m competing with every other software developer in the world, you think about, I’m just going to compete against these few dozen that I know. I’m going to try to best them as best I can.

Po Bronson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s go back to this biology, because I think the biology stuff is really interesting. We’ve hit a few of the things already. We talked about how testosterone actually makes people more cooperative, in order to be more competitive. We’ve talked about the COMT gene, and it’s influence on dopamine. Let’s talk about the process of what happens to our physiology as we prepare for competition. What happens during competition? What happens afterwards whether we win or lose? Why we have those responses?

Po Bronson: I think, the best way to approach this is let’s get back to how we as, I’m going to come at this, but I’m going to talk about stress. I’m going to talk about how we as a society label stress. We have an even more so than we are down on competition, we are really down on stress. We make a broad sweeping connection between stress and poor performance. People say, “Hey, honey. How was your day?” “It wasn’t very good. I was stressed.” “How was your test?” “I was stressed.” Stress taking reduces performance. “Oh, yeah, what’s wrong with that? Of course. It does.” We just accept it.

Let me tell you about the work of Jeremy Jameison. Jeremy was, he’s done this work, started, we did it with Harvard students who were preparing for the GRE exam, where they’re really competitive about what elite academic program they’re going to get into for graduate school, and he’s also reproduced at the other end of the spectrum with community college students in Michigan. The paradigms the same, I’ll just talk about the Harvard students for a second, but they come in and they take a, and the GRE is a computerized test, now, so the first thing they get is they spit in a cup, and they’re told they’re going to, their saliva is going to be measured for different hormones and stuff.

They read a page and half the students read a page that says, this is a study on the connection between stress, and performance, and the others read that, and they also continue to read a paragraph that says, new science is questioning whether stress is bad for performance, and it may in fact help you. We don’t really know, but when you’re taking this test, if you’re feeling stressful. It’s an open question whether it’s going to help you or not. They took the test, and the kids who got that prompt, who were told stress might help their performance, performed 50 points higher out of 800 on the GRE, just from reading that. When they took the actual GRE, they actually scored 65 points higher, months later. They hadn’t continued to be taught this. They just taught it once.

Now, you might think, I get it, see here, here’s what happened, you told them that, don’t stress out about your stress. You told them your stress isn’t going to be bad for you, so you know, you essentially trick them to not be stressed, but that was in fact not the case. They had taken their saliva levels, and they had tested them for alpha anomalies, and cortisol. They found that these students were in fact truly stressed, and more stressed. It was how their body interpreted stress. See if we label it as a bad thing we are actually harming our students, ourselves, every time. There is a very big difference here between long-term stress, and short-term stress.

Short-term performance stress can be harnessed to help you, not to hurt you. Constantly panicking about stress of competition is undermining kids, because it’s labeling short-term stress as wrong. Those physiological symptoms are actually your body moving up with lots of energy, because it knows this moment of competition has happened. We interpret it often as nausea, or as anxiety, but if you interpret it as energy loading to prepare, you will actually perform better.

What I was describing to you in kind of a previous question about how the way we mentally conceive of stress triggers our vagal nerves that instantly change the ratio of neuro-adrenaline to adrenaline, which affects out, throughout the entire skeletal structure of our body, the vasodilation verses vasoconstriction, which affects energy capacities, and especially tunes up the reward networks, or tunes up the fear networks. All of that is that physiology, is moderated by how you conceive of stress. That if you can conceive of short-term stress as pumping you up, as gearing you up, is ridding you for competition, you’ll perform better. You can actually harness your stress to perform your best.

Remember, that, that’s true regardless of the COMT gene, but remember that already that if you need a little bowess of a pat on the back, here, remember, because the COMT gene is evenly distributed in our society. A quarter of us fully need stress to perform our best. Actually, we think better under stress. Another half of us at least share, have a gene of at least one of the two genes for that. We got it from our mother, or our father. A lot of us can really benefit from this, but in fact what I’m describing as sort of the way the mind controls the physiology that’s true of all of us.

We need to change as a society how we think of short-term stress, and differentiate parses like the Greeks to the distinction between short-term stress, that’s predicated with training, I knew I had a presentation, I was working so hard on that presentation, I knew I was going to have to give, and I knew it would be stressful, but I prepared and then there was the moment of performance, and I nailed it. Then, afterward rest and recuperation, and if you give yourself those cycles, you can really do amazing work in that moment.

Brett McKay: What do you do if you have the COMT gene, where you crumble under pressure? How should you approach the competitive process that way?

Po Bronson: Great question, because when I would speak at say schools about this, many parents sit there thinking, and sometimes they’re almost in tears, they’re kind of interpreting this, “Wow. It’s my kids physical physiology, it’s her biology, it’s his biology that must be the case. My kid really is not wired for stress,” and they feel as if it’s fatalistic, like there’s nothing I can do about it. Their natural quick thinking is, strategy, is towards, “Well. I need to make sure then, for my kid to learn, that they need to not be in a stressful situation, to not have to deal with any sort of performance stress at all. When the time comes, maybe I won’t even have him take the SAT, because my kid has no chance,” because of this sort of biological fatalism.

The scientist, no scientist who works in this field actually agrees with that. That is sort of adaptive response. What they all note is that our brains learn, and we have many layers of systems, and what’s really important to do is to train up our stress management systems, and our stress control systems. It’s the same way I was describing that it’s true for everybody no matter what level, type of COMT gene you have, that if you think about short-term stress as performance enhancing you can leverage it. It’s important to inoculate kids to the stress response, and to inoculate them it means to stress them without overwhelming them. To understand the difference, and if you can adaptively train kids to cope with stress, but not to overwhelm them, their strength, their stress management systems in their body, and in their mind will improve. Their mind will learn how to activate these certain networks to control this stuff.

The simplest example, this is going to sound amazing, but you can tell with a certain neuro scan, which kids are going to be shy, at about nine months old in their life. You see a certain brain reaction. By the time they’re about six you will see, certainly by 10, you will see that about half of those kids, even though they were sort of biologically predisposed to be really shy, have learned to master and control that response, and tune it down. I was one of those kids, I was perversely shy until I was about six years old. My son also had this same neuro signature for sure. Neither of us would you think of as shy, we’ve learned through our sort of stress management systems to calm that response.

In the same way, it’s really important to empower, to inoculate, to strengthen these sort of stress management systems, so that they don’t undermine you, sure, there’s going to be situations where you cannot control that, and you’re going to have that sort of negative COMT gene thing. You’re going to be overloaded, and you need to distress in those points to perform your best. No question. Some people won’t, they’re never going to turn themselves into someone who really needs stress to perform their best, they’re still going to be the kind of person who without stress they perform their best, but even under stress they can still do well.

Brett McKay: It sounds like practicing in stressful situations, so if you’re practicing for the SAT, do it under time restrictions, or if you have a fear of public speaking slowly build up an audience until you can sort of manage that stress, that you’ll have. Just a lot of practice, it sounds like is the remedy, or part of the remedy.

Po Bronson: Let me just be really clear. Look. I scored, I did great on the SAT. Right? I have the genetic profile that’s going to help me in those moments, but the SAT is the worst form of competition anyone has ever had. It’s the dumbest thing ever. You cannot prepare for the stress of the SAT, you only take it once or twice in your life, there’s no training for it. Most of all, it’s just a badly competition design, because let’s see when I put my kid on a swim team, even if she doesn’t win, I’m like, she made friends, she got activity, she was outside, she had mentors, she had coaching, she learned the value of hard work, she became a better swimmer, she got some white ribbons, we had some birthday cake. There’s all these good reasons to be in the pool that aren’t just about winning.

Nobody ever comes out of the SAT and says to their friend, “You know, I bombed, but I really made a lot of friends at the Kaplan Center.” It’s the only competition, where the only thing that matters is the final score and that is not a good competition. Nobody ever says, “You know, I crumped in there, I scored terrible I’m sure, but I learned a lot of vocabulary in all of my training that’s going to help me long-term.” That would be the approach is that winning or losing you got better. No. This is a competition where the only thing that matters is final score, and that is by default a maladaptive competition.

Now, should we have SAT’s or not, well, SAT’s are going to be a test that benefits those who have the biological predisposition to handle that kind of performance stress. On the other hand, if you got rid of them, all the rest of it is a system designed to biologically, to favor those who biologically don’t have that system. Either way, we’re kind of screwed, so we need to balance these things fairly. We need to understand and recognize that we do have systems in place that some kids who score poorly on that kind of stuff, nevertheless can be great, brilliant students, and vice versa. There are people who don’t do great all year long, they don’t do amazing stuff, but when they have to write that paper, or when they do take that standardized test they ace it. That’s showing you sort of them at their best, and in this way both types of students can show you what’s at their best. I cannot defend the SAT, let me just make it clear. It’s a competition with the only thing that matters is the final score.

Brett McKay: Right. Hey, Po, this has been a great conversation, and there’s a lot more we can delve into, so I’m going recommend everyone go check out the book, Top Dog, but where can people find out about your latest works? I think, you mentioned earlier, before the conversation that you’re doing a lot of research about the future of sport.

Po Bronson: Yeah. The last two years, we’ve set up an editorial team, and we’re doing work on the future of sports, and you can find that on Twitter at @futureof or on the website at, and it’ll take you to the sports report. We did this with cooperation with 62 professional teams, and it’s been really fun. I think there’s a lot, not that there’s a lot of technology so much going to change sports as it is this, that a lot of change is coming to all of our society as result of new technologies. Sports is an interesting prism by which to look at these, and to get used to some of these new technologies and to think about it. It’s fun. is where you can find the future of sports.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Po Bronson, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Po Bronson: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: Like I said that was Po Bronson. He’s the author of the book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. You can find it on and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out his website for more information about his work, and also check out the show that is at where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out The Art of Manliness website at Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab, here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if you have any audio editing needs, or audio production needs check them out at We appreciate your views on iTunes, or Stitcher, it helps us out a lot. As always thank you for your continuing support, until next time. This is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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