Whether in the workplace, a sports tournament or a music competition, finishing in second place could make you the real winner in the long run, a scientist has said.
According to Chengwei Liu, associate professor of strategy and behavioural science at the Warwick Business School, those who win often do so because of a fluke and they actually have inferior skills.
“We assume the richest people have done something right and deserve our attention and rewards,” Dr Liu said at the British Science Festival in Brighton, The Times reports.
“Probably we should consider this too good to be true… They’re still pretty good, but not necessarily the best.”
Dr Liu bases his theory on a study he carried out with his team in 2012. They created a mock-up of a game involving 50 rounds and five million players.
However the researchers found that the players who finished top were actually about five percentage points less skilled than those who came further down the rankings.
Further research by Dr Lui confirmed his theory: upon assessing 7,000 publicly listed US companies, he found those that performed best one year were beaten by those who’d come second-best the following year.
It all comes down to regression to the mean, meaning that if you do particularly well at something one time, you’ll likely do more average the next.
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Dr Liu believes we place too much emphasis on winning, and this shouldn’t be the case. “We should pay attention to the second best,” he said. “Winners should not take it all.”
There are many examples from popular culture where those who didn’t win have been more successful than those who did.
On The X-Factor, for example, One Direction, Olly Murs and JLS all finished in second or third place but have had markedly greater success than those who won (Matt Cardle, Joe McElderry and Alexandra Burke, in case you’d forgotten them).
Dr Liu says we can take his logic and apply it to sports betting too – don’t bet on the team that came top last year, as they’ll likely lose their first game.
“I’m not saying skill and effort don’t matter at all,” he said. “If you want to move from poor [performance] to good, then skill and effort matter a lot. But if you want to move from good to great, luck matters more.”