Book Reviews

Bronson & Merryman, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

Top Dog
Top Dog

Victor Neiderhoffer recently shared his latest reading list, and on it was a title that caught my fancy— Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Twelve / Grand Central Publishing / Hachette, 2013). So, while I wait for review copies of more recent releases, I thought I’d spend some time with this one. I’m glad I did. It’s an intriguing investigation into competitive fire—what it is, and how to get it.

I could probably mine this book for a dozen posts. I could write about novices vs. experts (and why I get really annoyed when someone looks over my shoulder while I’m trying to solve a computer problem), warriors vs. worriers, women on Wall Street, playing to win vs. playing not to lose, positive and negative self-talk, additive and subtractive thinking, testosterone, even ballroom dancers and (something I know a fair amount about) dog handlers. But that would be unfair to the authors. Let me simply introduce a couple of concepts instead.

Most of us improve in competition, for a few competition makes no difference, and some are overwhelmed by competition. Science not only predicts which category you will fall into; it “also shows how people can improve their performance in competition, no matter which of those categories they began in.”

“Success in competition requires taking risks that are normally held back by fear. The first risk is entering the competition itself—choosing to compete. Everyone has his own personal threshold where the benefits of competing outweigh the fears. Those who focus on what they’ll win choose to compete far more. Those who focus on their odds of winning choose to compete far less.” On balance, men fall into the first category, women into the second. “Men tend to be overconfident of their abilities and thus are blind to some of the risk. This gets men into more contests, but it doesn’t necessarily help them win.” (p. 20) Another gender difference: men do better at finite games—those with a beginning and an end; women at infinite games, where “there is no end to the comparisons, only a waxing and waning of competitive intensity.” (p. 21)

To some extent, of course, we are our biology. We have a secondary dopamine clearer, COMT, that prevents the brain from overloading. As it turns out, there are two kinds of COMT—the hardworking and the lazy. “In people of European descent, 50% have a combination of both slow and fast enzymes; 25% have only fast enzymes; and 25% have only slow enzymes.” (p. 57) What kind of COMT you have determines how you handle stress. When you’re stressed, the synapses of the prefrontal cortex are flooded with dopamine. People with fast enzymes, which get rid of the extra dopamine, can handle stress; those with slow enzymes can’t.

Before we pity the people with lazy COMT enzymes, the authors call attention to the downside of having fast enzymes. “When someone is not being stressed … the enzymes clear out too much dopamine.” Under normal conditions, the prefrontal cortex of these people works suboptimally. “They actually need the stress (and the dopamine) to get up to the optimal level of mental functioning. They need stress to function best. Deadlines, competitions, high-stakes tests, et cetera.” (p. 58) Trading would suit these folks. Investing would probably be better for those with slow COMT enzymes. “They have better memories and attention and a higher verbal IQ. They’re superior planners and can better orchestrate complex thought.” (p. 60) Mind you, I don’t know how they would deal with severe market turmoil. Probably quite poorly, unless they are experts in reframing their thinking à la Warren Buffett.

Top Dog is not one of those vapid self-help books. Yes, it offers some suggestions for improving performance in competition, but its real value comes from providing a foundation for understanding competition and how we deal with it. It gives us tools, not a single easy answer.