Authors Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

The best-selling authors discuss the research for their new text, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.

Acclaimed authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman made headlines in 2009 when they released NurtureShock, which was called one of the most influential books about children ever published and also on The New York Times best-seller list for six months. The award-winning duo has collaborated again on Top Dog, a groundbreaking text that uses cutting-edge science in revealing the hidden factors behind every sort of win and loss.

Bronson has made a career of exploring the real lives of real people and is the best-selling author of six books, including two satirical novels. Merryman, an award-winning journalist, former litigator and speechwriter in the Clinton administration, has written for several publications, including Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.


Tavis: The title just about says it all, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”. The authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, take on a lot of what passes for conventional wisdom these days, that cooperation is always better than competition, that stress is always destructive and that taking risks is better than assessing risk.

They also have a lot to say about the different ways men and women approach competition, how kids are set up to fail as adults by the way they handle stress in school and how birth order is a training ground for how to succeed later in life. So lots to get to which I will not get to, I can promise you [laugh]. We will not get to all that in 30 minutes.

It’s such a provocative text, but at least you’ll know what’s in it and now you’ll want to run out and get it. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, good to have you both on the program.

Po Bronson: Thank you.

Ashley Merryman: Thank you.

Tavis: That intro pretty much sets up my dilemma. There is so much in here to get to that I can’t do justice to it in a 30-minute conversation. So let me start with some of the issues just raised in our introduction about the notions, the conventional wisdom, that cooperation is always better than competition. You don’t buy that, obviously.

Bronson: You know, even if you go all the way down to the hormone level, the hormone that’s most symbolic of competition is testosterone, all right? So the scholars bring women into the lab. They have them play this money game where they can steal from their opponent or share with their opponent, right? And they give them either testosterone or a placebo. The women who play selfishly assume they were given testosterone. They were given the placebo. The women who played cooperatively actually were given testosterone.

Testosterone is the hormone of collaboration and competition that, whenever we compete on a team, we collaborate with our teammates. And most of us in our daily life, to the extent that we have to compete with the rat race in the world out there, we’re collaborating with other people at the same time. The two are hand in hand.

Tavis: But I wonder, to your mind in our society, is competition over-rated or under-rated?

Merryman: I think that’s a great question. I think it depends on the context, right? Michael Phelps? Competition, great. The country needs to be more competitive, right? We don’t have any problem with that. You know, a basketball team? It’s when you talk about people. I think we start getting a little, you know, uncomfortable.

To say someone was really competitive at board games last night, that’s the problem. And I think what we’re doing is we’re wondering when it comes to people or companies or institutions, does competition mean you have to sacrifice integrity? Does it mean you have to be cutthroat or take out even your best friend?

But great competitors don’t have those problems. Great competitors respect their opponents, learn from them, realize I don’t have to win at all costs because there’s another competition coming up and I want to learn and improve over time.

Tavis: Speaking of over time, how do you think then, how do you explain, how over time competition has gotten such a bad rap?

Merryman: Well, I think some of it has to do with perhaps when we’re talking again about people and self-esteem movement and the idea that, if competition means there’s a winner, there’s a loser and we don’t want people to feel like they’re losers. And it’s not about being a loser.

It’s about making a mistake, you know, being bested one day, but then learning from it, right? I mean, failing up. It’s about having those challenges and then moving forward from them. It’s not about making people winners or losers. It’s about the competition challenging you to do the best you possibly can.

Tavis: Is it worth, Po, having a conversation about what we mean when we say winning and losing? Because when the book first came across my desk, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”, my first thought was, given how counter-intuitive I think, what do we mean by winning, what do we mean by losing? Is that worth having a conversation or am I in the weeds?

Bronson: And the title was meant to be provocative, right? We cover the science of competition, but we wanted to provoke that notion that you might lose and what is going on with losing? So when we compete in the right circumstances, if you and I were to compete, we both bring our best and we push each other to do more than we could just through internal drive and intrinsic motivation alone.

I can push myself and you can push yourself, but competing, we push ourselves a little farther and we bring out our best even if one of us wins and one of us loses. The virtue of competition is that we both get better, not that one does. And that means we have great respect for the opponents, whether we win or whether we lose.

The virtue of losing is we get used to the fact that competing and to lose doesn’t kill you. It just makes you stronger. It just helps you get used to it. I would argue that people who are what we call maladaptively competitive in the book, we use that term…

Tavis: I want to come to that distinction between adaptive competition and maladaptive. We’ll come back to that, but go ahead.

Bronson: My premise would be that people who have that have not lost enough. They are scared of losing and they didn’t have enough losing experiences in their formative years to understand that you can maintain your integrity, lose, come back the next time.

Tavis: While you’re on it, explain the difference – I was going to go there – between adaptive competition and maladaptive competition, as you use that term.

Bronson: So adaptive competition, what we call being a true competitor, is that you bring it all, but you’ll still have respect for the rules, respect for those who enforce the rules, respect for your other opponent and you would never think of crossing that line and you’re willing to try and lose or win and bring out your best. Maladaptive competitiveness is the person who can’t turn that instinct off, the person who has to win at everything, not just the things he or she cares greatly about.

Good competitive skills means not just to compete hard, but to selectively compete, to harness your energy for the things that matter and, in some cases, to just realize it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose here at all.

A surgeon might want to be the best surgeon in Manhattan, but out on Long Island on the weekend, not care at all how he is on the tennis courts or on the Ping-Pong table. Even turning your competitiveness off when it’s appropriate, when other people are not being competitive, to recognize that social circumstance and, you know, cool it. That’s a crucial competitive skill.

Tavis: I wonder to what extent the media – when I say the media, I mean Madison Avenue, I mean the zeitgeist – is responsible for this notion that, if you lose, you are a loser and that winner takes all, winning means all, who cares about second place? To what extent is society broadly speaking responsible for the way we think about winning and losing?

Merryman: Well, I definitely think that there is sort of a zero sum. I mean, politics right now, Congress. You know, we can’t give anything because to give anything doesn’t mean we’re working problems out. It means we’re the loser. And that zero sum mentality encourages people cheating, going for broke, because they don’t feel like they can have any gain from it.

We were writing a piece a few days ago about kids studying in the SAT. The SAT is a zero sum game. You get into Harvard or you didn’t. You don’t walk out of the SAT or even high school saying, well, I learned a lot. No, it’s all about did I get the right job? Did I get the right school? And if I didn’t, that learning, the growth, is just dismissed as unimportant.

Tavis: Is that unique to what we’re talking about here? Is this unique to American culture or are there societies that you’ve studied around the globe that view this notion of competition and collaboration a little bit different? Is that uniquely us, that uniquely American?

Bronson: It’s not uniquely American, but we are perhaps the most pronounced in our celebration of winners and our disregard of losers. And we also have built into that a counter-culture which is where it comes to kids. I live in San Francisco. As a volunteer, I help manage youth soccer, 12,000 kids in San Francisco.

There was a culture that came out of the self-esteem movement which was don’t anybody keep track of the goals. The kids keep track, but nobody keep track of the goals because we don’t want the kids to have the experience of losing. And in depriving them losing, thinking it scarred them to lose, we made losing so taboo, so unspeakable, that we instead made losing more scary to kids, not less scary.

Tavis: Since you raised this example of Congress which has like a 3%, 4% approval rating right now in all the sequestration mess of late, what would you and Po most like, you think, Congress to take out of this? What would be most useful for members of Congress, the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats, who are stuck in this what seems to be hopeless dysfunction? What’s the best takeaway from them about how to navigate the challenges that they face on behalf of the American people?

Merryman: I think it is exactly not looking at every vote as a zero sum game.

Tavis: Right.

Merryman: That every vote is either fatal to their political career or fatal to the party, and to look individually and say, well, how can we make this particular bill or issue better, and not actually be thinking about the winners and the losers, but just looking at the substance of it and getting what you think is the best thing, but realizing that there isn’t going to be, you know – real life is not all winner take all, right? We all have wins; we all have some things we get out of it. I think that that would be the best thing for Congress right now.

Tavis: There are some other great distinctions you make in this book that I want to jump into in no particular order. The difference between worriers and warriors, warriors and worriers.

Bronson: Yeah. So we write about a particular gene which has the COMT gene, C-O-M-T. But it’s gotten the nickname, the warrior-worrier gene. Now in a normal population, the two genes are equally distributed which means that half of all people have both genes, one of each gene, and one-quarter of people have worrier only genes and one-quarter people have warrior only genes.

What it seems to do, by regulating the genetic code for an enzyme that clears dopamine of the front of our prefrontal cortex, the net result is some people do their best without any stress on them and they actually have on normal days like 10 point IQ cognitive advantage without stress. But under stress, their brains start to melt down.

Other people actually on a day-to-day basis don’t really get up for it without some pressure and stress. They need stress and pressure and performance deadlines and bright lights on them in order for their brains literally to function their best, to think clearly.

The first group are the worriers; the second group are the warriors. And it sounds like to be the warriors are the best, right? We have to understand why the worrier gene is spread out. It’s there because, when there isn’t stress and you can think ahead, it helps you think ahead, plan for the future, strategize.

I was just saying the other day that a Secretary of State should have worrier genes where really she or he can think far into the future and anticipate every strategic possibility. It’s not bad to be a worrier or not better to be a warrior. They’re just two different styles.

Tavis: See, I agree with that. I didn’t take the bait the first time you offered it, that it’s far better to be a warrior. I didn’t see it that way. I own a company, 45, 50 employees, so I was thinking when I read that part of the text how much I would have loved when I hired all these people to have had a [laugh]…

Merryman: A genes log [laugh]?

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this. I would have loved to have known at the interview who had what gene, who was a warrior, who was a worrier. Because in a company that’s dynamic, you know, you need all of that. But it would help so much more to know who to put in what slot. Who does better under pressure, who does better without the stress?

So I don’t think it’s either/or or better or worse or winner or loser. I just think would there ever come a time when we will have that kind of information available to us?

Merryman: Well, I think it would actually – the researchers would say, oh, please don’t.

Tavis: Yeah.

Merryman: Because this thing is, you don’t want to write people off. There are Navy Seals…

Tavis: We’re not writing them off. We’re just trying to give them an opportunity.

Merryman: No, no. But there are Navy Seal warriors with the worrier gene.

Tavis: Oh, okay, I got you.

Merryman: So part of it is about the exposure to the stress. The person who has the warrior gene may be more susceptible to stress, but over time they can sort of get used to a particular situation. So someone who even was kind of thrown at the beginning after they’ve seen a few shows or after a few meetings are going, oh, I can get this. I can do this. Then there are sort of natural memory advantages, their concentration that they would have had on a normal day. Those start coming back and kicking in for them.

Tavis: Got it. All right, so we talked earlier about the difference between men and women. So this is the fun part of the show about what Po and Ashley have discovered about the science of winning and losing where the genders are concerned.

Bronson: And we didn’t want to touch this.

Merryman: Yeah.

Bronson: We didn’t want to go near this.

Tavis: You didn’t want to go there.

Merryman: Third rail, no.

Bronson: We did not want to go there. As journalists and science journalists, we did not want to go there.

Tavis: As TV host, we love this stuff [laugh]. We’re the let’s go for it! Men and woman, Black and white, you know, we love it.

Bronson: But it’s on now. It’s on now, right? The differences in competitive jobs in men and women are quite pronounced in the science. It’s not true of every man or true of every woman, but…

Tavis: Before you go further – I didn’t mean to cut you off. Before you go further, why didn’t you want to go there? Why were you reticent, hesitant, to take this on in this text?

Merryman: Well, I was told as a woman, you know, I was working in the Clinton administration once and one of my bosses, a woman, handed me books about women’s leadership and that women were supposed to be coalition builders. We weren’t competitive.

I was like I’m a lawyer. Everybody I know here is competitive. What are you trying to do? To tell women you aren’t competitive then also felt to me like one more step of so you shouldn’t compete or we don’t need to include you, and that killed me. I’m like no way I’m going to do that.

What the science was saying, you know, I would see those things. Women aren’t as competitive and the hackles would start rising on my neck every time. But once we got past that and into the research, we said, okay, well, I think we need to talk about this.

Tavis: So you were scared initially because of what? Fallout? Pushback?

Bronson: I didn’t agree with it. I thought there must be something wrong with it.

Tavis: Okay.

Bronson: You know, literally, like I was distrustful. Our last book, “NurtureShock”, was on child development and other journalists played up slight tiny differences between boys and girls and said boys are from Mars, women are from Venus kind of thing. I felt like, well, surely these gaps must be small and they’re just making a big deal out of it, but the gaps were not small.

Merryman: In competition.

Bronson: In competition, right. Well, the clearest gap was that last November, the last year in the 2012 election cycle, only four American women out of 180 million American women went to City Hall or to their local electoral office and wrote their name down to run for governor of an American state over the entire United States of America, only four women.

So despite the fact that when women were running, they were winning. Women were not entering into these races the way men were. And that was a real challenge for us. Like I can’t ignore that. That’s a social issue. It’s important to bring science to bear on this.

And the scientist whose work was most important was Sarah Fulton out of Texas A&M University. She had been polling state senators and wondering whether they were going to run for U.S. Congress. And she was asking them, “Are you going to run” and she was also asking them, “What do you think your odds of winning are if you were to run?”

It turned out that below 20% odds; almost all the candidates are going to be men. Men will take that long shot. Women are going to want the odds to improve before they get in. And when the odds went to 30%, 35%, 40%, at a certain point, women started jumping into the race and were willing to jump into the race. In fact, are more likely to compete than men are when the odds are good.

The net result – and this was confirmed in Texas judges and in New York judges as well – the net result is that men seemed to be willing to ignore risks. Women are very good at judging the risk and don’t want to waste time with losing. So not that they’re not as competitive, and certainly once they’re in the race they’re every bit as competitive, but they make that choice to compete in a more calculated way sensitive to the odds.

Tavis: So the previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as we all know, is on everybody’s short list as one of the most likely to run in 2016 and to perhaps win if she were to run. I can imagine already, I’m already three years ahead of us of this conversation.

When she announces that she is going to run and it would appear at least, of course, she felt this way four years ago, but would appear at least to have a really good shot at winning perhaps the next time around, given her role as Secretary of State and all the other stuff she’s done that the journalists are going to take this book and they’re going to read it and they’re going to start applying what you have research to what we should expect from a Hillary Clinton presidency based upon the science of winning and losing where women are concerned.

And what do you think they’re going to take out of this? Just like they took your last book, “NurtureShock”, and did the shorthand on that, what’s the shorthand they’re going to take out of this vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton?

Merryman: I think it’s that, if Hillary runs, she thinks she can win.

Tavis: Right.

Merryman: You know, looking and very carefully understanding the politics and saying, yeah, I can do this. It’s not just I want to or it’s time to have, you know, more women running, so I should just do this. It’s going to be, no, I think I can do this, so I’m going to run.

Bronson: She’s going to have a playing to win mindset, not just an entering the game kind of playing not to lose mindset, you know. I think that there’s probably other aspects of the book for her performance that we’re going to watch, but it’s going to be interesting to see as it gets down to a zero sum game kind of feeling.

That’s when politics can always get dirty, lies can start getting spread when people want to get pushed beyond the point of adaptive competition, you know. How she’s going to handle it is going to be very interesting.

Tavis: What does “Top Dog” say to us about the distinction between playing to win and playing not to lose, no matter who we may be in life?

Bronson: Again, it sounds like playing to win is the cool way to go and playing not to lose is for losers, right? On PGA golf, important championships, men take more risky shots on the golf course to try to engineer wins. Women try to take fewer risks in order to engineer wins. They still win. Both tactics can be really useful and either side can optimize, you know.

But the important thing to know about playing to win and playing not to lose is that there are actually different neural networks that are being used. It’s not very easy to do both at the same time and, if you are trying to have a playing to win mentality, you’re going for it, there’s some things that trip you up or trigger the wrong neural network.

If you start worrying about your mistakes all of a sudden, if you get too focused on the facts and the details, these are going to shift your neural networks and sort of screw up your strategy. So the book is a lot about there’s about holding on to understand what are the components of that strategy and staying on track.

Merryman: Because playing not to lose is really about preventing mistakes, saying, oh, my gosh, there’s a disaster and it’s coming and I’m just trying to minimize how terrible this could be. Whereas playing to win is focusing on what you can actually get and you’re going to win, so your attention is different.

In playing to win, someone is giving you compliments. You’re like, oh, good, because you want to hear about the things you’re doing right to keep going. The person who is playing not to lose wants to hear about his mistakes because that’s what they’re looking for. They say, oh, I can change that then. So it’s a different focus.

You know, it’s interesting when Po was saying that we think, oh, playing not to lose must be for losers. But when you’re on top, people are waiting for you to make a mistake. So you can actually, even when you’re being successful, change it into that mindset because you’re worried about preventing the problems.

Tavis: It’s March and we’re headed into March Madness. This weekend, I was watching a bunch of games to decide who’s going to, you know, get a chance at a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Duke game the other day was fascinating because Duke was up by 10 points with a couple minutes to go and Miami, who had killed them earlier in the season, came back to put the game within two. College basketball fans see this all the time, not so much in the NBA. We see it in college basketball all the time. When that clock gets down to a minute or two, they’re running out the clock.

Bronson: Right.

Tavis: So at that point, rather than being aggressive, they’re not playing to win, they’re playing not to lose. We see this kind of played out, no pun intended, in front of us all the time.

Bronson: Right, though I’m assuming that those teams, those are some of the top teams in college basketball. So when they go to playing not to lose and trying to ice the clock, they’re good at it.

Tavis: Right. They’re very good at it.

Bronson: Coach calls a time out. They’re shifting their gear, there’s particularly strategies for doing that to make that work. The average single person, without a Coach Kay around, might slip up and that’s when you see these dramatic swings in sports.

Tavis: So, PBS to my mind – I’m not saying it because I’m on PBS. I grew up watching PBS as many of us did. PBS to my mind is without peer, without competition, when it comes to children’s programming. So I know there are a bunch of parents right now who will want to get this book for one simple reason.

What do I need to know to raise a child who is a winner [laugh]? What do I need to know about how I want to raise my child to embrace the science of winning and losing? What do you tell parents?

Bronson: Well, you know, I told you I’m already involved with youth soccer in San Francisco, right?

Tavis: Right.

Bronson: The most important thing that every kid needs is to feel like she or he has a fighting chance when they have to compete, whether it’s the first experiences on the soccer field, it’s learning to read, it’s checks and check pluses before they ever get to grades.

You know, they need to feel like they’re not being drowned out by superior competitors and they’ll make that connection that, with a little more effort, I can compete. I can be competitive. I can be successful here with a little more effort and application and they learn that themselves. It’s not just us telling them how hard you work matters. They need to feel it on their own.

Tavis: If the argument here is that kids need to know that they have a fighting chance, what does the science of winning and losing say to kids in inner cities, many of whom do not feel at ever a point, any point in their childhood, that they have a fighting chance?

Merryman: Well, I’ve actually been tutoring not too far from here in inner city L.A. For my kids, I’m focusing on what they know they can do and to give them then the confidence to say, okay, I’ve mastered that. So you don’t start competing against kids who are born with silver spoons in their mouths because they’ll just say I can’t do that and give up. But you give them interim markers. Like my younger kids play Perfection, you know, the game where you do the pieces?

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Merryman: And no one’s every perfect. They screw up and say, well, you don’t have to be perfect. Get more pieces in the game than you did the next time. So they can see that it’s not about the winner or the loser, but that incremental progress keeps them feeling like they do have that chance and they’re not just going to get frustrated and give up.

Tavis: It’s the Po and Ashley show. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”. If you read their New York Times best-selling text, “NurtureShock”, then you already know about the power of their prose. Po, good to have you on.

Bronson: Thank you.

Tavis: Ashley, good to have you on as well.

Merryman: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Goodnight from L.A. and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm