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Why do we like winners so much?

Hardly anyone in the Netherlands ever watches skeleton racing. But we’ll soon be glued to our TV sets when ‘our’ Kimberley Bos slides down the track at the Olympic Games. All because she stands a good chance of winning a medal. Why do we like winners so much?

With racing hearts and clammy hands, we’ll spend the next few weeks in front of the TV cheering the Dutch Olympians on to a podium place. A Dutch win feels so good. ‘We feel vicarious pride because we can identify with the athlete,’ says organisational psychologist Aukje Nauta. ‘You almost feel like you are your fellow countryman. That’s why we grow a bit if our skeleton athlete wins, for example.’

Skeleton athlete Kimberley Bos crosses the finish in a competition. Source: Wikimedia

Against the other group

This is because we are social beings who rely on groups. Good cooperation with the members of our own group enables us to survive. At the same time, it means that we are against another group. ‘That’s what the Olympic Games directly appeal to,’ says Nauta. ‘The moment a Dutch person wins, we’re better than that other group. It’s in our genes to be for our own group and against the others. That’s why it feels so good if a Dutch person wins.’

Less nationalistic

But what if a compatriot loses? That feels awful, especially if they were expected to win. After losing, our reaction is very different. We’re suddenly less nationalistic. ‘You distance yourself from the group because you’re not responsible for that loss,’ says Nauta. ‘Loss breeds fear. That is intrinsic to evolution because we want to survive. This makes us much more focused on not losing than on winning.’

Research has also shown that the pain of losing is greater than the joy of winning. ‘Losses loom larger than gains’, wrote psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979.  For that reason alone, let’s hope that Kimberley Bos wins a place on the podium.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Banner photo: ANP
Photo in text
: Wikimedia

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