Personal success more appreciated than team dominance in sports, business

September 03, 2020

ITHACA, N.Y. - People enjoy witnessing extraordinary individuals - from athletes to CEOs -extend long runs of dominance in their fields, but they aren't as interested in seeing similar streaks of success by teams or groups, according to new research from Cornell University.

"Individual success inspires awe in a way that team success does not," said co-author Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell. "[Individual success] makes us hopeful that human potential isn't as limited as thought it was. If that height is reached by a team, its cause is seen as more diffuse and isn't as exciting."

In a new study, Gilovich and lead author Jesse Walker conducted nine studies involving 2,625 Americans. In one study, they examined people's view on the success of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who won the 100-meter dash in the last three Olympics. Bolt was also a member of a team that won the gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay at those same Olympic games.

Many more people reported they would prefer to see Bolt win the gold medal in the individual event in the next Olympics than in the relay event, results showed.

The preference for seeing individual streaks doesn't just apply to famous athletes in familiar sports. Studies showed people supported individual runs of dominance over team dominance in the British Quizzing Championship and in the best closure rates on homicide cases in U.S. police departments.

This preference has implications in the business world, as well. In one study, participants read about electronic components manufacturer AVnet, one of the 350 largest companies in America.

Participants who read that AVnet's success could be attributed to its CEO thought the company should command a greater share of the market than did the participants who were told the company's success was tied to a group of executives.

Other studies by the researchers looked at why people feel differently about individual versus team winning streaks. They found that people attributed individual streaks of success to the people themselves, while team success was attributed to situational factors.

"We're now looking at how this effect might influence people's reactions to economic inequality and policies designed to alleviate it," Gilovich said. "Are people less troubled by evidence of inequality expressed as big gaps between individuals than expressed as big gaps between groups?"
For more information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Cornell University

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