‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.’ –Bertrand Russell


Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as “Fischer-fear.” Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer’s greatest rival, once said: “When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.”

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren’t limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up. (…)

Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (…)

In the early 1960s, the psychologist Sam Glucksberg demonstrated that the same effect could also inhibit creativity. He gave subjects a standard test of creativity known as the Duncker candle problem. The “high drive” group was told that the person solving the task in the shortest amount of time would receive $20. The “low drive” group, in contrast, was reassured that their speed didn’t matter. Here’s where the results get weird: The subjects with an incentive to think quickly took, on average, more than three minutes longer to find the answer. Experiments like this have led Ms. Beilock to conclude that people should be skeptical of evaluations based on a single high-stakes performance.

{ Wall Street Journal | Continue reading }