Follow-up: The impact of overwhelmingly talented competitors on the rest of the field


A while back, I wrote on the impact of hardworking employees on their less diligent colleagues. Slate uncovered a study that demonstrated the reverse effect: How Tiger Woods makes everyone else on the course play worse.

The magic ingredient is the incentive structure. If you have an incentive structure which rewards the best-performing person, and there is somebody who pretty much blows the rest of the field out of the water, then the incentive structure effectively slips down one notch. Everybody is now fighting for second place (since they've written off first place to Tiger Woods), and since the second place prize is far, far below the first place prize, people don't have as much incentive to play well as they did when Tiger wasn't in the mix.

The effect weakens the further down the ladder you go, for although the difference between first and second place is huge, the difference between 314th place and 315th place is pretty negligible.

Comments (14)
  1. 's/incentive strcture/incentive structure', I suppose.

    It holds the same also for who is watching the competition: already knowing almost for sure who's going to win takes away a lot of the fun.

    [Typo fixed, thanks. -Raymond]
  2. Brown finds that competitors fare less well—about an extra stroke per tournament

    An extra stroke per tournament doesn't seem like much.

    Even if we suppose that it's statistically significant, it could just be due to riskier play (hit over the water rather than taking the safe fairway shot) trying to catch Tiger.

  3. MWF says:

    @Matteo Italia

    "It holds the same also for who is watching the competition: already knowing almost for sure who's going to win takes away a lot of the fun."

    Reminds me of a particular trend in my own sport of choice, practical shooting. One man (Rob Leatham) has won every single National Single-Stack Match since they first began in 1995 (first as the SSC, then as the combined SSC/USPSA SS National).

    Speculation before the SS Nationals is usually relegated to "who do you think will take second place".

    -DVC-

  4. CDunn says:

    I wonder if the author thought about the idea that the golfers WERE trying harder to win, which resulted in them taking riskier shots thus leading to more mistakes. In my experiences golf is one of those games which trying harder tends to lead to playing worse.

  5. If so, then having a clear leader can be good for the sport.  "Risky golf" is more exciting to watch (or less dull, depending on how you feel about golf in general.)

  6. Another canonical example of an overwhelmingly superior sportsman was Marion Tinsley in the game of checkers.

    en.wikipedia.org/…/Marion_Tinsley

  7. Cheong says:

    I've read about a similar story: There's a company which gives prize to the salesman who makes the highest amount of commission wach month. But as there's one of the salesman who always topped the others for sales, the "up-charging" effect fades away. Every other  better salesman of the crowd just "pretends" the prize doesn't exist in order to protect their self-esteem (Note: Self-esteem is considered to be very important for salesman to work). The plan simply doesn't execute as it was planned.

  8. jeremy says:

    I've noticed, as a grad student in physics, that this is how things work here, too.  A lot of grad students, and professors, look at what the top people in the field are doing and say "well, I can't beat that" and just spend their days watching youtube videos and screwing around, instead of learning, or doing, any physics.  This results in a lot of physicists (e.g., most of the people you see in the media talking about physics, or writing pop-physics books, aside from a few exceptions) being extremely ignorant about the basics of their field.  I've heard anecdotally that similar things are true in other sciences, too.

  9. Green Cat says:

    Solution: make the second (third…) place more attractive (if only financially)?

  10. B. Mamentu says:

    Like Sebastien LOEB does in World Rally Championship…….Everybody is now fighting for second place….

  11. GWO says:

    The double-edged sword here (albeit specific to the Tiger Woods example) is that Woods brought so much extra money into golf that *everyone* earned more.  In 2010, Martin Kaymer's victory in the USPGA earned him $1.35million.  In 1995, the last tournament pre-Tiger, Steve Elkington won, and picked up a cheque for $360k (about $500k, inflation adjusted). That's a 160% increase in real-terms, over 15 years.  Elkington picked up half his winners cheque ($270k) in 2010 for being in a three-way tie for fifth.

    Perhaps more surprising is that Tied-71st place was worth $3160 in 1995 (about $4400 in 2009 dollars).  In 2010, Jeff Overton picked up $13,900 for finishing 72nd.  Thats about a 200% increase.

  12. JT Anderson says:

    But eventually Tiger Woods will get caught cheating on his wife, or some such thing, and his game will fall apart.  Nothing lasts forever.

  13. No One says:

    @JT Anderson:  I'm going to pretend that, like this blog entry, your comment was written well over a year ago because it's funnier that way.

  14. TennisFan says:

    How Roger Federer inspired a Rafael Nadal and they both inspire millions.

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