The Sherwood Report

Opponents (Issue No. 16, Part 1)


Equilibrium is a theory that people will play their best, given their beliefs, and players have correct beliefs about their opponent. However, a number of studies have called both these presumptions into question.

For example, in a study of ELO-rated chess players, if players came to a draw in one game, and subsequently faced each other, they were more likely to agree to a draw the next time.

In a 2013 study of National Spelling Bee competitors, during the first round, kids were 20% more likely to make a mistake, if the previous speller had spelled a word correctly, than if they followed someone who had made an error. (Though the effect lessened during later rounds–presumably as the quality of spellers evened out.)

Researchers have said that, in a rivalry match, teams are more willing to see their rivals as better than other teams they’ll confront–and they also believe that rivals will be more devious during competition. Which is fascinating, considering that the most intense rivals are often between people who otherwise should have so much in common (e.g. Harvard vs. Yale, Gates vs. Jobs).

In a recent analysis of the 2015 Brazilian soccer championship games, researchers tracked how variability of opponents affected performance over the course of the tournament. They concluded that it impacted players’ maximum velocity (but not average velocity) and total distance they traveled. It explained 19% of the variance in between-match high intensity play. The opponent had slightly more of an impact on performance than the status of the game being played.

Who you’re playing can be more important than what you’re playing for. And when true, that’s when performance may be at its best... or worst.... 


If your opponent takes a competition very seriously, you may see a post-loss increase in testosterone. (Basically, your body’s priming for a rematch.)

Learning from opponents can catalyze creative thought, so higher levels of competition may lead to more creativity.

In a 2011 University of Texas study of a computer sports game, the more attractive opponents were, the more competitive people became, while playing against them.

In a Columbia University experiment, researchers looked at medial-frontal negativity–how someone’s brain responds to another person’s loss. When women watch an opponent, they empathetically experience an opponent’s loss as a negative, even if it is gain for themselves. For men, an opponent's loss triggers a positive response, and the opponent’s win is a loss. 

Ashley Merryman