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Can Losing Lead To Winning? Motivational Factors in Second Half Performance...By Jay Graziani

It's just common sense that teams ahead on the scoreboard at a given point have a greater chance of winning the game, and the further ahead they are, the higher their chances of ending up ahead. But can losing sometimes lead to winning? In other words, can being behind at some point actually increase a team's chances of ultimately winning? A recent paper from two Wharton School professors says yes, basing its conclusions on a study of college basketball performance.

The influence of psychology on performance, athletic or otherwise, can't be understated, and being just slightly behind your competitor might provide a powerful motivational boost. Research has shown that, in general, people will work harder the closer they are to a goal. So a team that is only slightly behind in a game may try harder than if they were ahead or if they were so far behind that winning the game was completely out of reach.

"When Losing leads to Winning" (available at by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope of Wharton Business School examines the idea that being slightly behind can increase motivation and, in turn, success.

The first part of the paper focuses on college basketball games with halftime scoring differentials of 10 points or less, about 6500 in total from 2005-2008. They found that every 2 points a team was ahead at halftime led to about an 8% increase in the probability of winning the game. But there's a blip in the data where teams that were behind by 1 point at the half were actually more likely to eventually win the game. And that increased effort came right out of the gate -- teams behind by only one point at halftime outscored their opponents by 1.2 points over the course of the second half, but 0.6 points of that extra effort was realized almost immediately.

The bottom line - college basketball teams down slightly at halftime outperformed their opponents in the second half, and the biggest boost came in the first 4 minutes after halftime.

A simple anomaly in basketball data isn't very convincing, so the authors bolster their argument with some laboratory work. The second part of the paper is an experimental study in which they looked at performance in a simple computer game. After the first session, players were given feedback about how they were performing compared to a competitor. Participants that were told they were only slightly behind had about 3 times the increase in effort of players receiving no feedback. And being told they were only slightly behind increased game performance much more than being told they were far behind, tied, or even slightly ahead. Being far in the lead, however, did seem to cause some complacency - players told that they were far ahead seemed to put in less effort in the second part of the game.

Fellow Wharton prof Justin Wolfers recently blogged about a similar study of tennis matches ( That study by Lionel Page looked at about 70,000 tennis matches in which the first set was played to a tie break and determined the player winning the close tiebreak set tended to win more often in the second set. Page used that study to argue for the influence of "momentum" In sports performance. Wolfers' blog attempts to reconcile these results, arguing that losing a close tiebreak set is equivalent to falling "far behind" in the basketball example, where no performance boost was seen. Wolfers' blog also contains some additional data from the authors of the basketball paper and a link to some outside threads discussing whether a similar effect can be seen in the NBA.

Like most research on sports markets that hits the mainstream press (see the New York Times article at, this study has received its fair share of controversy -- in particular, if that one "off" data point the authors base their conclusions on actually even means anything. While the performance experiment in the second part of the study backs up the general principal, whether the effect is actually in play during college basketball games is questionable considering the limited sample size. And one has to wonder why no performance boost was seen by teams just 2 or 3 points behind, still easily within striking distance of the win.

If you believe the data, the conclusions of this paper suggest plenty of angles for halftime and in-running betting situations, especially for anyone with access to a database of scores by game quarter or half. If you like a favorite who is slightly ahead at the half, this paper suggests that holding off a halftime bet in favor of an in-running wager a few minutes into the game may lead to a better line. The expected motivational surge from the trailing team may equalize the score in the early minutes of the second half.

Jay Graziani

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