The Winner Effect

The Winner Effect offers fascinating - and often astonishing - answers to questions on winning and power.

Winning and being in positions of power can have profound psychological effects on individuals and alter their ability to make rational decisions. Moreover, people are affected differently by winning. Ian Robertson breaks down the 'whys?' behind questions like this and more. For example, "Are men more likely to be power junkies than women?"

Book Summary

The Winner Effect

A term used in biology, the 'winner effect' refers to how animals that have won a few fights "against weak opponents are more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders." This effect, as Robertson has shown, applies to humans too.

"Success changes the chemistry of the brain, making you more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive ... But the downside is that winning can become physically addictive."

The children of successful parents

Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. His work is known worldwide.

On the other hand, his son, Paulo Picasso, developed fatal alcoholism, a result of depression.

Considering his father's success it would only be natural to assume that Paulo would equally be set up to replicate similar achievements. So, why didn't this happen? 

In a similar theme, a study by Morten Bennesden found in "handovers to new CEOs in over 5,000 companies ... where the succession was to a family member rather than an outsider, the profitability of the company dropped by at least 4 per cent around the time of the succession..." This finding further stokes the question as to why the children of over-achievers fail to meet their parents' reputations.

Harvard Psychologist, David McLelland discovered high-achievers tended to set "moderately challenging targets for themselves: that is, demanding but attainable."

Though for the children of over-achievers, such as Paulo Picasso, "How can you set goals for  yourself that don't look trivial and paltry compared with their great work?"

Personal goals that are set too high can lead to disabling psychological effects, particularly as super-challenging targets are less likely to be met, and thus a winner effect unlikely to occur.

Moreover, an element of egoism may be at play. Behind all great geniuses is a lot of work. As Daniel Goleman popularised in his book, Outliers, he claimed world-class expertise required 10,000 hours of work.

Yet many successful parents hide this hard work. Robertson asserts this is because:

"they attribute their success to something inside themselves - an entity, in other words. They contemplate their sparkling success in the world and can only assume that they have been born geniuses..."  

A consequence of this egoism is a crippling effect on a child's motivation and desire to excel. 

Power's effect on personalities and behaviour

The psychological make-up of leaders has been an important factor in shaping history. In this chapter, Robertson explores what effect power can have on the mind, focusing on UK ex-prime minister Tony Blair. 

Holding extreme power causes the corrosion of a person's ability to detach from their own perspective - "a potentially fatal shortcoming."

This psychological flaw could be seen in Hitler's move to invade East Europe without adequate supplies and "whole regiments were sent east without proper [winter] clothing. It is estimated that, as a result, around 14,000 German soldiers had to have hands or feet amputated because of frostbite."

Hitler's abnormal confidence in a quick victory in Russia resulted in an infamously reckless campaign. Worse yet, it only echoed Napoleon's fatal mistake a mere ~130 years earlier, also infamously reckless. 

Interestingly "power-needy people are particularly attuned to facial signals of the impact they are having." This is significant because facial expressions signal where we stand in a hierarchy. An angry face might suggest we're overstepping our place. Whereas, a surprised face, on the other hand, signals we've made an impact on a person.

The Riddle of the Flying CEOs

Chapter 5 asks whether winning has a downside.

The power gained from winning arguably 'goes to the head' of some people leading to erratic behaviour and distorted decision-making capabilities. 

During the 2008 financial crisis, the CEOs of the big three automakers flew to Washington to plead for $25 billion in taxpayer money to avoid bankruptcy. 

All three CEOs flew in private jets which naturally brought about much criticism and media attention. Who in their right mind would fly a private jet asking for a bailout loan? This brings us onto the question of this chapter: how does power affect peoples' ability to think and act?

A study by Kathleen Vohs found students with money-primed brains were typically less helpful to a passing student who spilt pencils on the floor beside them. Compared to other students, the money-primed group picked up significantly fewer pencils.

Not mentioned in the book, another report by Kathleen Vohs found university students majoring in economics made more self-interested moves in social dilemma games than students of other disciplines. Further suggesting money (or power) might alter individuals' decisions. "The students then rated how acceptable it was for them" to have picked up fewer pencils. "Sure enough, the higher power people were significantly more forgiving of themselves than of others, compared with the lower power ones."

A study by Deborah Gruenfield and colleagues at Stanford University found "if we arouse power feelings in otherwise ordinary people, they begin to see others as objects." This arguably provides evidence suggesting higher-power people have a reduced ability to empathise with others.

Differences between men and women

Later in the chapter, Robertson questioned whether gender played a role in the brain-changing effects of power. Specifically, if women were less vulnerable to these effects.

In essence, his findings were this: "Women on average do not have any lower need for power than men ... And women respond to competition and power in very similar ways to men."

"But there are differences: it seems men are more power aware - they pay attention to signs of power more than women do, and they remember more facts about powerful than less powerful people ... Finally, men sniff out the power relationships in a room quicker than women do."


A person's need for power is an important factor in shaping their character, yet it isn't something we typically think about in regards to character - "we are more likely to consider classic personality features such as whether someone is introverted or extroverted."

A person's need for power can affect marriages and relationships as much as politics and businesses. People with a high need for power tend to "climb up the career ladder more quickly than less power-hungry colleagues."

The downsides of high power needs include: being more likely to abuse partners; aspirations to dominate others; and starting to see people as objects, rather than people.

This book is undoubtedly a must-read for anyone in a position of authority. Reading it will likely prompt you to examine yourself and behaviour. "By learning to be aware of the physical roots of power and success, we can better learn to control how power affects us and those around us."