“Winner Effect” and “Loser Effect” in Martial Arts


December 16, 2007
Ido Kron

Researchers in the field of animal behavior noticed an interesting phenomenon when regarding territorial fighting fish: these fish, the males to be precise, fight each other following a breach of territory. Researchers saw that a fish that has won several times in a row has a better chance of getting into an additional fight, as well as having a better chance of winning this fight. Conversely, and with even greater statistical significance, a fish that has lost several fights has a smaller chance of going into another fight and a greater chance of losing it or retreating in the middle (see reference no. 1). These phenomena have received the terminology “winner effect” and “loser effect” respectively.

 

The biological reasoning behind this phenomenon is clear: a fighting fish risks injury and wastes energy in each fight, as well as elevating his risk of being preyed upon. Consecutive losses place the fish in a certain hierarchy. Previous losses affect his behaviour and he avoids confrontation when possible. Furthermore, if presented into a fighting situation, he would prefer to finish it quickly. Quite often this fish will lose the fight. This is the loser effect.

 

Winner and loser effects have also been studied and presented in mathematical models in the evolutionary concepts of the game theory (2).

In a research conducted on territorial mice (3) it was found that mice had a significantly higher probability of winning their fourth fight, when followed by three previous wins. Also, the time lapse of the fourth confrontation was shorter, and the probability of “freezing” instead of fighting decreased significantly. Another interesting finding was that there was a strong correlation between the number of wins and the level of Testosterone in these mice. Testosterone, the main male hormone, is linked to male sexual development as well as to aggressive and competitive behaviour and social dominance.

 

The correlation between rising Testosterone levels and the winner effect are further pronounced when neutered mice are used (4). In these mice, consecutive wins were not sufficient in sustaining the winner effect for long periods of time. Additionally the winner effect causes the mice to improve their chances of winning in the future without regard for their initial combative capabilities. This study shows that as with fish, the winner effect is present in territorial mammals, and it is Testosterone hormone-dependent.

 

There is scientific evidence that in man there is also an increase in Testosterone levels preceding an imminent fight as well as following a fight. Testosterone increases coordination, cognitive abilities and the levels of concentration during the confrontation. It was found that among competitors that won, Testosterone levels were high and dependent on the elevated spirit of the winner. This effect was found among Judo practitioners as well as among chess players. On the other hand, Testosterone levels within the losing groups decreased (5). Researchers speculated that the reason for elevated Testosterone levels among the winners has to do with the fact that they stand before more competitions in the near future, as opposed to the losers who would rather abstain further fighting and risk injury.

 

The loser effect has also been studied on other animals (6) and is applied to other fields such as economics (7) and politics (8).

I would like to deduce from this phenomenon on martial arts in general and the martial school I study in AKBAN.

 

It is difficult to defeat a veteran. It is hard for me to beat someone who wins fights with me every time over. Even if inside I know I have improved, narrowed down gaps in technique, worked on my weak points €¦ evolved. Still, some hurdles are difficult to pass.

When I begin Randuri (practice fighting) with someone who has beaten me in the past, the mind and body do not work properly. Perhaps it is the mind that prevents the body from working as it should. I think too much, react too late and surrender positions. What chance do I have of winning to begin with?

 

On the other hand, there are those that cannot beat me. I feel that they give up on submission too easily, do not attempt to go into attacks, do not follow through with the techniques and look rather despaired against me. I, on the other hand, feel rather confident working with them. I allow myself to be a little more adventurous in Randuri, try out new techniques without concern and put myself willingly into bad positions. Often, when these same people work with other practitioners, it is noticeable that they give more of themselves, go all the way. This is an interesting phenomenon.

 

People are complex creatures, at least on the emotional-conceptual level, more than any other creature. The intricate social concept enables people to learn from the experience of others and apply this experience to them. “Who is wise? He who learns from all men”.

In a group dynamic, it is very simple to identify the dominant person, the authoritative person, the leader, and follow them. On the other hand, it is also easy to spot the weak person, the lowest in the chain of command. This can be noticed in groups of children playing.

 

These same characteristics enable us to see who is stronger or weaker, winner or loser. Even without personal experience, from observing alone, it is possible to assess within a group of trainees who is the strongest. If I fear him before the confrontation, the loser effect begins to have impact on me, even if we haven’t yet taken a bow or shaken hands. The winner effect has disadvantages as well: excess self-esteem, disrespect to the opponent and at times a feeling of having “reached the peak” and stopping the running (9). The loser effect has an advantage: a lower probability of being hurt.

 

The winner and loser effects are just a part of the whole picture, of course. There are many factors that affect us prior to and during Randori: technical level, physical fitness, fatigue, daily troubles, moods etc. However, psychological and hormonal effects have a direct or indirect influence on us as well. If De La Riva comes to Israel to train with us, and I do Randori with him, I wouldn’t do a violent Randori. Not just because he is tens of times better than I am and I fear his response, but also out of a feeling of respect and the fear of injuring or being injured. These reasons are also included in the loser effect. This can also be seen in Randori with the coach when he says “work, don’t be shy”. This hurdle is also difficult to pass.

 

 

1. Yuying Hsu and Larry L. Wolf (2001). The winner and loser effect: what fighting behaviors are influenced? Animal Behavior (61), 777-786.

2. Michael Mesterton-Gibbons (1999). On the evolution of pure winner and loser effects: a game-theoretic model. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 61, 1151-1186.

3. Temitayo O. Oyegbile and Catherine A. Marler (2005). Winning fights elevates testosterone levels in mice and enhances future ability to win fights. Hormones and Behavior (48) pp 259 267

4. Trainor B.C., Marler, (2001). Testosterone, paternal behavior, and aggression in the monogamous mouse (Peromyscus californicus) Horm. Behav. 40, 32-42.

5. Allan Mazur and Alan Booth (1998). Testosterone and dominance in men. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (21) pp 353-363

6. Hugh Drummond and Cristina Canales (1998). Dominance between booby nestlings involves winner and loser effects.

7. Anthony J. Richards (1997). Winner-Loser reversals in national stock market indices: Can they be explained? The Journal of Finance Vol. 52, No. 5, pp. 2129-2144.

8. http://www.nrg.co.il/online/archive/ART/389/579.html

9. http://www.akban.org/blog_en/?p=124