Human Motivation & Affective Neuroscience Lab
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Are all people stressed out by a defeat or does it hurt some more than others? (April 2006)

In a study published in a recent issue of the science journal Hormones and Behavior, Michelle Wirth and her co-authors Katy Welsh and Oliver Schultheiss looked at what happens to people's stress hormone levels when they are defeated in a laboratory contest. To do this, they had students compete against each other in pairs on several rounds of a speed-based contest task. One half of participants received feedback that made them believe that they had lost the contest decisively, whereas the other half received feedback that they had won. Wirth measured participants' levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in the body in response to stress and that has been implicated in depression and memory loss, in participants' saliva samples before and after the contest. They also measured participants' nonconscious dominance drive, called the implicit power motive, at the beginning of the study.

Wirth and her colleagues found that cortisol did not go up in all losers. Only participants with a strong implicit power motive were really hit by the defeat, as reflected in steeply increasing stress hormone levels. Losers without this nonconscious drive did not show a hormonal stress response. In other words, being defeated is stressful only for those who want to be powerful, but not for those who are not even interested in power in the first place.

Interestingly, winning the contest had the opposite effect. As expected, power-motivated individuals responded to a victory with a drop in their stress hormone levels. But individuals low in power motivation had an increase in cortisol after they won, suggesting that they were stressed by coming out on top.

"As our results show, one man's poison is another man's cake," said Oliver Schultheiss, co-author of the study. "The power-hungry "wolves" among our participants were hit hardest by a defeat, whereas the "sheep" couldn't care less about being beaten. However, the "sheep" were really uncomfortable with winning. This runs counter to the idea that everybody likes coming out at the top of the heap. That's a really surprising finding for us."

As it turns out, then, not only does being defeated hurt some more than others; defeating others can also be a source of stress.

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