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horse winnerHave you ever been motivated by losing a job, a race, a competition, or another opportunity? When you lost out, did you miss by only a little or a lot? Researchers have found that contrary to conventional wisdom, losing by only a little is more motivational that losing by more points, places, lottery numbers, etc.. The theory is, that those nearer the top compare themselves to those above them and there are fewer above them.

Those who rank lower identify themselves to the larger field of people below them. In fact, those who come in 3rd can be more discouraged than those who come in 2nd. The person who comes in second might think, “Wow I only missed by one.” The person further down on the other hand can fall prey to thinking, “None of us could beat that person. We must not be very good.”

I did some judging last weekend and, on my hour and a half each way, one of the podcasts I listened to on the way home explored this very subject. I immediately thought about what had happened that morning. The young pianists had all come in very close and in a couple of instances the difference in place was determined by only half a point.

Before the results were announced in each division, the chair mentioned the tightness of the point spread along with the fact that they had made our job as judges very hard. Immediately, there was a very noticeable thaw in the room and the actual winners had not yet been announced. I’m pretty sure the psychology of near misses was demonstrated right then.

When I help my own students detail their pieces for performance, we mark the offending areas in colored pencil. I find that they can be very overwhelmed by all the small places they need to attend to. I ask, “How many measures are in the piece?” (we’ll use 100 as an example) “How many measures do you need to clean up?” The answer is usually around 10 because once they clean up one area it applies to several other places. So, I say casually, “That means you have 90% of this thing in good shape right?” Their whole demeanor changes and they almost always start planning ways to make the needed work happen.

Here is the entire Hidden Brain episode for you.

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