A competitor’s testosterone level before a chess game can predict whether he’ll win. A ballroom dancer who has competed for years can still have the same anxiety levels found in someone skydiving for the first time. Job hunters who spend a lot of time visualizing their dream job are more likely to still be unemployed six months later. These are some of the surprising findings uncovered by researchers around the world and gathered by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Top Dog: The Science Of Winning And Losing. Approaching competition the same way they did parenting in their New York Times bestseller NurtureShock, the authors have produced another fascinating work fusing science and sociology.
As with NurtureShock, one of Top Dog’s primary goals is showing how common thinking isn’t backed by science. The book integrates studies monitoring social behavior, hormonal readings, and brain-wave activity, and the authors don’t shy away from listing chemicals or parts of the brain, expecting readers to integrate the information and keep up as the book continues. It’ll satisfy popular-science veterans, but the base findings are surprising enough that readers can appreciate them even without completely understanding the measurements that led to a result.
Top Dog spends a lot of time looking at competition in traditional settings like the Olympics or dog shows, then logically extending those studies into areas like the workplace, politics, and schools. But Bronson and Merryman also link in studies and stories that are a step removed, yet still incorporate the principles that shape competition, like how expectations affect results for a hip-replacement patient, or how experiences with luck cause later mistakes at NASA. It helps increase the book’s relevance by showing how humans have evolved to deal with challenges in ways that are always at work, even for people who aren’t racing or taking tests.
While Top Dog’s subject matter isn’t as sensitive as NurtureShock’s, it still tackles issues that are bound to raise questions, like why women are underrepresented in Congress because they don’t like their odds of winning political battles, and how practice only goes so far to determining the ability to succeed. The authors are also incredibly dismissive of the power of positive thinking and the desire to minimize stress. But the writers back all their surprising or controversial findings with research, and they adeptly provide a frame to turn that science into an easy, highly satisfying read.