The Sherwood Report

Opponents (Issue No 16, Part 2)


In an experiment, Tel Aviv University researchers asked 384 Israeli school children to play a two-person board game similar to chess. But before the game began, the researchers warned the kids, “These positions not only look different, they are in fact not equal. The position of the player using black pieces is much better [worse] than the position of the player using white pieces. He or she has a considerable advantage [disadvantage] which he or she can utilise [needs to overcome].”

Lo and behold, the kids with the advantage did win more–64% of the time.

However, the researchers had lied. Neither child had an advantage. The researchers were testing how beliefs of self- efficacy affect performance. Hearing that the rules favored one kid had an effect of becoming true, regardless the reality. And the effect was stronger, when the researchers framed the game in the negative–when they said that a kid was disadvantaged.

The research team concluded that believing you have an advantage over an opponent is motivating. But believing the rules are stacked against you can be even more (de-) motivating. 


If you promise to cooperate with an opponent, that increases your likelihood of cooperating, but it doesn’t increase your opponent’s likelihood of cooperating.

Oxytocin increases perception of an opponent’s mental state by heightening focus on the opponent’s eyes. It decreases response time to happy faces and increases response time to fearful faces.

“When rivalry and time pressure coincide, ‘winning’ becomes a more powerful motivator.” (Malhotra) People may adopt a strategy to aggressively beat an opponent, even if it’s self- defeating.

According to a Harvard study, teams on offense tend to rely on the information they have within their team; the defense looks elsewhere. Offense tends to use its information to confirm a chosen course of action. Defense has a vaguer course of action that is broader in scope. 

Ashley Merryman