You could call winners lucky. But that’s not why they keep winning, says University of Cambridge neuroscientist John Coates, who explains how winning once makes us luckier—and more likely to win again. It’s an exhilarating cycle that can be explained in pure physiology. Winners enter the next round of competition with elevated testosterone levels, an androgenic priming that gives them an edge, increasing their chances of winning yet again. Folks lucky enough to win keep on winning, it seems.
“A powerful school of economics has long argued that markets are random, much the way flipping a coin is random. So anyone who does outperform the markets is just lucky,” says Coates, who left his work as a derivatives trader on Wall Street to pursue neuroscience and is the author of The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. “But I don't think anyone believes that anymore. Anyone who has traded the markets knows that there are times when they trade well—and that isn't luck. It just feels that way after you've won.”
What Happens When We Win?
Coates was curious about the interplay of risk, performance and reward. So he turned his attention to the animal world, and studies that documented winning streaks. Coates points to findings, in two dozen species studied, that an animal that has won a competition is statistically more likely to win again. But the winning animals aren’t just bigger or hungrier. Experiments that controlled for those variables revealed that in an evenly matched competition, the previous winner is more likely to win again.
The reason is a fundamental physiological change. Winning elevated the animals’ anabolic hormones, the ones that prepare us for competition by increasing muscle mass and oxygen in our blood. These hormones can also boost confidence and an appetite for risk. By contrast, losers’ hormones fall off—sending the message that the animal should go off and nurse its wounds. “So if you can get your anabolic hormones up, legally and naturally, it can feed on itself,” Coates says.
Coates applied these ideas to Wall Street and found that the same physiological changes could give traders more focused attention and the ability to sustain that attention for hours at a time. “It might also increase the amount of risk they take,” he says. “If you're a good trader, then the bigger the position you take, the more money you'll make.” In other words, they win big.
Visualize Your Next Victory
That’s all well and good for winners, but what if things aren’t going your way? How can you break out of a losing pattern? Even talented athletes can get into a funk, and when this happens, Coates believes that their bodies have actually changed. The remedy: rather than simply psyching themselves up to win, they should trick their bodies into believing they already have.
Studies in sports theory have found that athletes benefit from emulating prior victories; a hockey team that watched videos of themselves winning just before a game improved their performance on the ice. Small victories, such as meeting manageable goals, can provide stepping stones to further success. Coates says spending time with winners can be infectious, too.
There’s one other guideline to remember: Winning a challenge requires a rested body. “Whether you’re a lion, a trader or a tennis player, when you’re meeting a challenge, you’re causing tissue damage,” Coates says. Recovering well gives you time to rest and digest, to calm down, to strengthen your immunity and replenish your body. It’s no surprise, then, that those who regularly operate under high levels of stress are doomed to lose. As with a standing army that’s always on high alert, fatigue eventually sets in—and challenges begin to overwhelm the participants.
“If you have to face risks—and we all do—the physical resources that you can draw upon, the state of your body, translate into mental resources,” Coates says. “Someone who is taking care of themselves is just more likely to win in the challenges they face.”