Down a Few Points, Digging Deep

In today's New York Times, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School describe research showing that being slightly behind at halftime can give a team an NCAA team an edge.

They were able to replicate the effect in an experiment involving video games.

In both the basketball and video gaming examples, they found the team with the lead played as hard and as well as ever. But the trailing team played even better than normal, which provided the difference.

This reminds of two things:

  • David Thorpe loves to quote Coach Bob Knight. I'm going to mangle the context, but as I recall it, Knight was asked what it is that is most important for basketball players to do, and he said: Concentrate. I buy that. And maybe being right in a game -- but on your way to losing -- is a great way to get a whole team to concentrate.

  • I had a college professor who knew all about politics, and he said that the best place to have your candidate on election day was one point behind in the polls. That is statistically a tie, but anyone who loves that apparently trailing candidate will be sure to show up and vote. A race that close is all about turnout. (In a way, that's another version of getting people to concentrate.)

Berger and Pope describe their work:

We analyzed more than 6,000 N.C.A.A. basketball games played in the past four seasons. Surprisingly, the data show that trailing by a little can actually be a good thing.

Take games in which one team is ahead by a point at the half, as Duke was in the 2006 loss to North Carolina. On average, the team with the lead should win more than half of those games. The data, however, show the opposite. The team trailing by a point actually wins more often and, relative to expectation, being slightly behind increases a team's chance of winning by 5 percent to 7 percent.

The reason is not that teams become cocky, complacent or lazy when they are slightly ahead. And it is not that better teams tend to fall behind at halftime. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages and which team got the ball to start the second half.

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

This effect goes beyond basketball, and even sports. Consider a simple experiment we conducted.

Our subjects played a short game by pressing buttons on a keyboard, and we manipulated the feedback they received halfway through. Some were told they were doing slightly worse than their opponent; others were told they were doing slightly better. We then measured how hard each worked in the second half of the game. As in basketball, those who knew they were slightly behind worked harder. Those who were ahead did not slack off.