The Positive Impact of Comparisons on Motivation

Comparisons can be a powerful motivator in various aspects of life. They inspire individuals and teams to strive for better results, catch up to competitors, and excel in their respective domains. However, it is essential to keep this motivation in check, as not all forms of comparison are beneficial.

Josh Ether

4/5/20192 min read

Comparisons have the power to influence our motivation and drive us to achieve better outcomes. Let's explore some instances where comparisons lead to positive results. One such example is a Duke-Michigan basketball game. At halftime, Duke was trailing by one point, and the coach likely delivered a motivating speech in the locker room. As a result, Duke came out with renewed determination, turning the intense and close game into a blowout victory. This pattern was not unique to this particular game but was observed in a study of over 18,000 NBA games conducted by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope. They found that teams trailing by one point at halftime were more likely to win the game. The comparison to the opponent's lead motivated the teams to increase their effort and achieve better results.

This connection between comparisons and motivation extends beyond sports. We can witness its impact on a global scale, as demonstrated by the space race between the United States and Russia. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower declared the United States' goal of launching a science satellite into orbit. However, when the Russians launched Sputnik before the United States, it created a sense of falling behind and the need to catch up. This comparison to the Russians' achievement motivated the United States to take significant action. The government implemented the National Defense Education Act, which included scholarships and increased funding for programs like NASA. The comparison to the Russians' success drove the United States to invest a substantial amount of money, leading to remarkable accomplishments in space exploration.

Rivalries provide another context where comparisons fuel motivation. Rivals are individuals with whom we have an intense psychological competition. Gavin Kilduff's research on running races revealed that runners perform better when they have a rival in the race. This phenomenon extends beyond running and can be observed in various domains. Larry Bird, a renowned basketball player, exemplified the intense focus on a rival. He would eagerly check the box scores to see how his rival, Magic Johnson, performed. Rivals push each other to excel and achieve better results, as seen in the rivalry between the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Duke University basketball teams. They have a history of winning national championships in alternating years, with each victory driving the other team to perform at their best.

Comparisons also play a significant role in shaping decisions and actions within relationships. A study on sisters found that when one sister's husband earns less than the other sister's husband, the income disparity motivates the sister with the lower-earning spouse to work outside the home. It is the relative income comparison that drives their motivation, rather than the absolute amount of money.