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Losing Hurts (In Surprising Ways)

During the Olympics we will hear a lot about the winners. But the reality is most athletes at the games come home without a medal. Today we explore what losing does to athletes, fans and anyone who casts a vote for president.

Listen to this week's episode to hear the story of judo star Jimmy Pedro, and how he dealt with a crushing defeat in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Daniel Pink also joins Shankar for a Stopwatch Science competition on all the unintended consequences of losing.

Stopwatch Science

The Olympics can stir hope for world harmony, as we watch countries set aside their political differences in favor of peaceful, athletic competition. But a 2013 study revealed a darker side effect of competitive sports on fans. German scholars tracked the attitudes of high school students before and after big soccer matches against other countries. When the German national team lost, the researchers found the high schoolers developed more negative views of people from the winning countries. Meanwhile, the students' views of people from other countries not involved in the soccer matches remained the same. This study suggests that international sports competitions may not be a path to world harmony after all.

Being a fan of a losing team may also contribute to obesity. Researchers at the INSEAD business school looked at saturated fat consumption in cities with NFL teams during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Saturated fat consumption was constant on Sundays and Tuesdays but on Mondays--the day after game day--consumption of saturated fat increased by roughly 16% in cities with losing teams. The effect was stronger when the home team played against a closely-matched competitor and lost. The theory: After a crushing defeat, a losing fan finds comfort in comfort food

If losing may hurt our future health through poor dietary choices, it may also harm us more immediately. A team of researchers wanted to know if the stress of losing a Super Bowl in a nail-biter might actually hurt your heart. Part of their research examined the 2008 Super Bowl in which the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots. The study found the week after the loss in Massachusetts, home of the Patriots, heart-related deaths increased by about 20 percent compared with the previous year. The New York region showed no increase in such deaths.

The agony of defeat manifests in athletes' bodies as well--especially on their faces. Researchers have found that study participants only had to watch about four seconds of basketball or table tennis games to recognize--from the looks on the athletes' faces--who was winning and who was losing. The participants were also able to quickly surmise whether the game was close or a blowout.

Being the one with a worse score is not necessarily always bad for you or your team however. Researchers analyzed more than 18,000 NBA games, paying close attention the score at halftime. Teams that were losing by one point at halftime were actually more likely to win the game than teams that were leading by one point. One possible explanation could be that being only slightly behind is not nearly as discouraging as it is motivating, making one work harder to catch up.

Loss can also hurt in the world of politics. Researchers wanted to know how a party's political loss affects voter happiness, as reported in a survey. They examined the 2012 presidential race. Democrats were not noticeably happier after Barack Obama's victory, but Republicans were absolutely devastated by Mitt Romney's loss. The study did not examine other presidential victories to see if the pain of this sort of loss cuts across both parties.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.