Cornell researchers just discovered something interesting about success

The New England Patriots are revered as heroes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but outside of the New England area, most NFL fans will tell you they want nothing more than to see Bill Belichick’s team fail for the next decade and beyond. On the other side of that coin, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps had amassed an unbelievable 23 gold medals by the time he retired in 2016. Despite all that success Phelps was, and still is, universally loved and appreciated by fans all over the country and the globe.

So, why is Phelps’ success story so much easier for the majority of people to appreciate than the Patriots? A new joint study from Cornell University and The Ohio State University finds that when it comes to success and dominance in any field (sports, business) people appreciate personal accomplishments over team victories.

“Individual success inspires awe in a way that team success does not,” says study co-author Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell, in a release. “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.”

“When we see Usain Bolt win three gold medals in a row, it expands what we thought was the limit of human potential. Team winning streaks don’t change as much what we think humans can achieve,” adds co-author Jesse Walker from OSU. “People appear to be more moved by individual success than group success and so they’re more interested in seeing individual success continue.”

In total, Gilovich and Walker conducted nine experiments encompassing 2,625 people to come to these conclusions. Some of those experiments revolved around the world of sports, but others focused on business and other fields.

For example, one project asked subjects to read up on Avnet, one of the largest companies in the United States. However, half of those participants read an article attributing Avnet’s success solely to a fabricated CEO. The other half were given a different story that stated the company reached great heights thanks to a team effort of high-ranking executives.

Those who had read the CEO-success story told researchers that Avnet should “control a greater share of the market” than participants who read the executive team’s success story.

“This could be one of the reasons why customers connect personally with companies like Apple that are identified with their founders and CEOs,” Walker explains in a university release. “Successful companies like IBM or Samsung that are more faceless have a harder time connecting with people on such a personal level and inspiring people to root for their continued success.”

Circling back to sports for a moment, another experiment entailed asking participants on their views regarding Usain Bolt. Bolt, considered the fastest man on the planet by many, has won the 100-meter dash in the last three Olympics. But, he has also been a part of gold-medal winning team efforts for his home country of Jamaica as well (the 4×100-meter relay).

Overwhelmingly, study subjects told researchers they would like to see Bolt win more individual gold medals in the next Olympics over any team accomplishments.

Additional experiments came to similar conclusions. One such project told participants about a little-known Italian sport called Calcio Fiorentino. Half were told it is an individual sport and that one amazing player had won the championship six years in a row. The other group of subjects was told it’s a team sport and that one team had won the title six years straight. Sure enough, those who were given the individual dynasty narrative were much more likely to report a desire to see the same individual/team win a seventh title.

One experiment even focused on homicide closure rates among U.S. police departments. Again, participants supported a story of a single detective solving multiple crimes over a narrative leaning more toward a collaborative departmental effort.

Why are people naturally drawn toward individual feats of success over team victories? The study’s authors conducted a few more experiments focused on answering that question.

“We found that people view individual streaks as attributable directly to the talents or efforts of the individuals involved, which inspired feelings of awe that they presumably enjoy and would like to continue,” Walker comments.

Team success, on the other hand, is often written off or dismissed as a result of “situational factors.”

“When an individual is on a streak of success, it is a lot easier to pinpoint who is responsible – they own their success. With a group or team, there are so many people involved and so many moving parts that it is less clear. There could be any number of factors that account for a group’s success,” Walker concludes.

Take the legendary Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s for example. One could conceivably argue that those teams wouldn’t have won six NBA titles without a superstar like Michael Jordan. Jordan’s individual greatness, however, is undeniable.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.