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Study: Personal greatness more loved than team dominance

People enjoy witnessing extraordinary individuals – from athletes to CEOs – extend long runs of dominance in their fields, but they aren’t as interested in seeing similar streaks of success by teams or groups, a new study suggests.

“Everyone wants Usain Bolt to win another gold medal for sprinting. Not so many people want to see the New England Patriots win another Super Bowl,” said lead author Jesse Walker, M.A. ‘17, Ph.D. ‘19, now an assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“Individual success inspires awe in a way that team success does not,” said co-author Thomas Gilovich, Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Chair of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “[Individual success] makes us hopeful that human potential isn’t as limited as we thought it was. If that height is reached by a team, its cause is seen as more diffuse and isn’t as exciting.”

Walker and Gilovich did nine studies involving 2,625 Americans; their paper, “The Streaking Star Effect,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In one study, they examined people’s views on the success of Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who won the 100-meter dash in the last three Olympics. Bolt was also a member of a team that won the gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay at those same Olympic games.

Many more people reported they would prefer to see Bolt win the gold medal in the individual event in the next Olympics than in the relay event, results showed.

But the preference for seeing individual streaks continue doesn’t just apply to famous athletes in familiar sports. Studies showed people supported individual runs of dominance over team dominance in the British Quizzing Championship and in the best closure rates on homicide cases in U.S. police departments.

This preference has implications in the business world, as well. In one study, participants read about electronic components manufacturer AVnet, one of the 350 largest companies in America.

Half the participants were told that a (fictional) CEO of the company had guided the company for the last couple of decades, making a series of shrewd and successful decisions that led to AVnet’s success. The other half were told a group of executives had guided the company, making the same shrewd decisions.

Participants who read that AVnet’s success could be attributed to its CEO thought the company should command a greater share of the market than did the participants who were told the company’s success was tied to a group of executives.

“This could be one of the reasons why customers connect personally with companies like Apple that are identified with their founders and CEOs,” Walker said. “Successful companies like IBM or Samsung that are more faceless have a harder time connecting with people on such a personal level and inspiring people to root for their continued success.”

Other studies by the researchers looked at why people feel differently about individual versus team winning streaks. They found that people attributed individual streaks of success to the people themselves, while team success was attributed to situational factors.

 “We’re now looking at how this effect might influence people’s reactions to economic inequality and policies designed to alleviate it,” Gilovich said. “Are people less trouble by evidence of inequality expressed as big gaps between individuals than expressed as big gaps between groups?

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Gillian Smith