The superstar black hole

Photo by Flickr user itspaulkelly. Click for sourceThe Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the ‘superstar effect’ where competition against someone who is perceived as far superior actually makes the other competitors perform worse due to a sort of ‘implicit intimidation’.

The piece, by science writer Jonah Lehrer, riffs on a study [pdf] by economist Jennifer Brown who looked at the effect of Tiger Woods presence in a tournament on other golfers’ performance:

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.

The article lifts off from there and virtually every paragraph has an insight into how we internalise skills and how our performance is affected by our perceptions and mental activity.

Link to WSJ article ‘The Superstar Effect’.

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