x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Humdrum take on pop psychology

Why does competition bring out the best in some, while others choke? Top Dog: The Science of Winning And Losing seeks to shed light on the matter with insights gleaned from top athletes, Nasa scientists and the cutting edge of neuroscience.

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

"As you think, so shall you become," said the acclaimed martial artist Bruce Lee, whose message of visualising success to help make it a reality has made its way into dozens of self-help books.

But a new book suggests that mantra, and many other pregame pep strategies that have made their way into the mindset of the business world, might be misguided.

Top Dog: the Science of Winning and Losing looks at how individuals operating at peak performance - from top athletes to ballroom dancers and Nasa scientists - condition themselves for success.

Visualising success can work for some, but others will still find themselves trailing their opponents to the finish line. But what causes people to crack under competitive pressure?

The authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman pluck a selection of insights from contemporary neuroscience to understand the challenges and mental stresses brought on by competition, in an effort to figure out why some choke while others romp to victory.

The book features in a growing corpus of works in the pop-neuroscience section of the library, which, like their pop-psychology forebears, attempt to make the intricacies of cutting-edge research on the workings of the brain accessible to the layman.

On that front, the book is mostly successful.

It is finely edited and never misses an opportunity to hit the mark with a well-selected anecdote, but the result is a book so austere that it creates the feeling that one is probably supposed to read it while exercising on a treadmill.

Managers seeking to get the most from their teams will probably find it handy, and the book may well find itself on the reading lists of some MBA courses within time.

The book is well-sourced, punchy and probably useful. But it also struggles at times to rise above being depressingly utilitarian and rather generic - which ironically enough makes it hard for the book to stand out among the many competitors covering the subject.