Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Response to "The fewer the competitors, the harder they try" from Economist.com

I was reading a post by Clive Shepherd called Sometimes Smaller is Better, where he disucsses an interesting article from the Economist.com called The fewer the competitors, the harder they try.

The articles discusses the "n"-effect where "n" represents any numerical value in mathematics and the outcome of several experiments conducted to understand the relationship between the number of participants in a competition and the motivational level of the competitors.

"Two behavioural researchers, Stephen Garcia at the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor at the University of Haifa in Israel, looked at the results of the SAT university entrance examination in America in 2005 ... found that test scores fell as the number of people in the examination hall increased. And they discovered that this pattern was also true for the Cognitive Reflection Test, another analytical exam."

This seems to imply that when there are "too" many pariticipants for any event, a kind of inertia or attitude of "giving up" sets in. I call this "someone else is sure to get it done" feeling. As I read Economist articles, I was reminded of a chilling incident described by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, "The Tipping Point."

In this classic Gladwell published in 2000, he describes an infamous incident that took place in New York City in 1964 when a young woman called Kitty Genovese was chased by assailants over a span of 30 minutes, attacked thrice and stabbed to death in full view of 38 of her neighbours. At that time, none of the witnesses called the police.

Further experiments proved that people rush to the aid of a distressed person when they feel they are only one around to help. When the number increases beyond a certain point, the responsibility or the motivation is diffused. What exactly is the Tipping Point and the perfect "n" that can maintian motivation is contextual and relative.

Thus, the conclusion that social psychologists like Latane and Darley arrived at is this: "the lesson is not that no one called the police despite the fact that 38 people heard her scream; no one called the police because 38 people heard her scream." She would probably have had a better chance of survival on an empty street with a lone bypasser.

This seems to be true of examinees in an exam hall. When they see a huge number of people competing in the same exam, they lose motivation thinking that there is bound to be a lot of people much better than them.

The same scenario can be transposed to a job interview. When we walk in for an interview and see one other or maybe two candidates for the same post, we kind of brace oursleves and tell ourselves we should be able to bag this one. When the number of candidates for the same post is very high, an automatic, unconscious feeling of negativity or despair set in. We tend to think, "Oh my god! I'll never get this one. Look at the number of people applying. Some of them are bound to have skills I don't even possess..." This becomes the deciding factor.

So, what is the Tippping Point, be it for an exam, a competition, a willingness to rush to the aid of someone in distress...?


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