Without a doubt, it feels good to win. When we’re playing a game, when we get what we want, when we feel accomplished, we feel good. But why does winning mean so much to us? Understanding the answer to this question is pivotal because we often are willing to go to extreme lengths to win.
This weekend, I played ball with my five year-old son. He is learning the essential skills of soccer at school, so he is excited to kick the ball back and forth with me on a Sunday. I noticed how worked up he got as the game continued and couldn’t help but wonder: what’s really going on?
It wasn’t much of a game. We started just kicking the ball back and forth. But over time, he started to implement rules he wanted me to follow. The purpose of these rules was to note who got a point. Once points were involved, the atmosphere of the game changed altogether.
So this is what it looked like. We stood on opposite sides of a basketball court. The goal was to have the ball hit the wall behind our opponent. So all I had to do was kick the ball to the wall directly in front of me. His job was to stop the ball and try to get it to touch the wall behind me.
Here’s what happened. Any time I would score, my son would have a reaction. Several times, he changed the rules. He was keeping score. If he thought my point was legitimate, he would announce the score, giving me a point and usually himself one as well. Other times, and often, he would not see my point as legitimate. That’s when it got interesting.
So when I got a point, sometimes my son would call me a “cheater,” saying that he was “on TO.” He made other excuses including that he hurt his knee, explaining “that’s why I couldn’t get the ball.” At a different moment, he told me that I’m “making it hard” for him and asking me to let him have a point. Later on, he started crying.
I went to comfort him and asked why he was tearful. He said it was because if I won, it would mean that he would have to give me a hug. He didn’t want to. He wanted, instead, for me to hug him. Interestingly, we had not established any post-game rewards until that point, but this is what he came up with.
Certainly, in the mind of a five year-old, winning is important, even if he doesn’t quite know how to verbalize its importance. What is clear is that it is tied to a feeling of triumph to which we associate a sense of self-esteem. But could there be more to the equation?
The Importance of Winning
When farmers plan for the future of their crops, they pick the best stocks and selectively breed those over less fruitful ones. Over time, these breeds get stronger and are more likely to produce additional successful crops. After reflecting on this process, Charles Darwin, a naturalist and biologist, came up with the theory of natural selection which states that all living beings struggle for existence and those who are the cream of the crop are artificially selected to continue breeding.
After reading On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s book, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that tells a story about why winning is so important.
If the theory holds true, then we are all a product of humans who were strong and genetically successful in our prior lineage. And if that is the case, perhaps we don’t just think winning is important; it is wired into us.
Taking it Too Far
If winning truly is wired into our psyche, it is no wonder why we are willing to break the rules, cheat, manipulate, lie, and have an emotional breakdown when we see ourselves as losing. But if we win through these methods, does our win really count? If we are longing to feel good about our accomplishments, wouldn’t we want them to be based on true ability? And what happens when our abilities aren’t as developed as we need them to be in order to win?
When we think about winning in terms of survival, it makes sense to focus on getting our basic needs met. Referring back to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first three levels are around: (1) physiological needs such as shelter and sustenance, (2) safety such as financial stability and employment, and (3) love and belonging which allow us to connect to others and, ultimately, if we look at it from an evolutionary point of view, to procreate. But just as our brain misinterprets threats as real even when they are simple thoughts in our mind, so too do we mistaken winning and losing as something outside the scope of survival.
For some people, winning is important for social reasons. It allows us to have a certain persona in the public eye. If you are a politician, for example, winning comes with power and recognition. If you are an actor, winning a prestigious award for your acting, it is about creating a distinguished name for yourself and it can certainly make you more in demand for the rest of your career. If you are a lottery winner, an instant millionaire, winning symbolizes a change in lifestyle and often values. It can afford you a social status you weren’t privy to beforehand. Certainly, no matter what version winning takes, there can be a lot at stake.
But not always. When my son and I were kicking around the ball, what was actually at stake? Was he going to have a severe consequence as a result of losing? And even when the game was still going on and he had a chance to continue playing and earn more points, the thought of someone else winning made the game highly emotional for him.
What makes us emotionally invested in winning, even when the stakes are low, is a sense of pride, a momentary boost in ego and energy that brings excitement to our life. It is also the desire to avoid feeling like a loser, an unaccomplished player whose skills are not adequate to win. And from a developmental standpoint, it makes perfect sense why a five year-old would be so utterly focused on his experience while ignoring his teammate’s experience. But as we grow older, we are taught (because it doesn’t necessarily come naturally) that we have to be a “good sport” and that it’s all about having fun, not winning.
Skills like empathy are part of what make us truly successful in life. They are what psychologists called Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Today’s literature points to EQ as being far more important than IQ both at work and in life. And, while IQ is, at least in part, genetically passed down, EQ is learned.
Because losing is often correlated to losing face, a phenomenon that affects our self-image as well as our social status, we often develop a fear of failure. In the case of my son, we can argue that for him the fear of losing the game to his mother was more about his own self-image. He wanted to win because if compared to him, I am a giant in stature and more experienced and skilled, winning means that he is incredible. While his reaction was around a fear of losing face that made him emotional, for others the fear of failure can keep them from try new things, from taking risks, and from potentially expanding their learning.
So yes, we want to feel accomplished. But we have to be willing to earn it through hard work and practice over time. That’s when winning has meaning for us. At least when the issue at hand is not about survival.