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

By Review by Wray Herbert and Wray Herbert,

The 1979 Daytona 500 came down to a duel between two veteran drivers, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. Allison was ahead on the final lap when Yarborough tried to slingshot around on the inside. Allison cut across two lanes to block Yarborough’s move, but Yarborough refused to yield, and the two cars locked together, forcing them into a crash on the third turn. Richard Petty took the checkered flag, while Allison and Yarborough ended up in a nationally televised brawl on the infield.

This is my summary of a much longer narrative in “Top Dog” of this 34-year-old incident, which, according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, transformed stock-car racing into a national pastime. “Top Dog” is an “investigation into competitive fire — what it is and how to get it,” and the authors include this story to make a point about financial incentives and motivation. The winner that day would take home a prize of $73,900, $15,000 more than the second-place finisher, and the argument is that cash prizes — and especially such a disparity in rewards — spark competitive fire.

Yet it’s hard to take that lesson from this tale. It could be that drivers drive faster or more recklessly when more money is at stake — and perhaps that makes for better television. But it doesn’t necessarily make for better driving. Certainly neither Allison nor Yarborough became a better competitor as a result of the sweetened prize that day. One could even argue that ending up in a collision and a brawl is the opposite of excellence in performance.

Bronson and Merryman are gifted storytellers, and readers will be seduced by these richly textured, leisurely narratives. Indeed, much of this slender volume is given over to such human-interest stories. The authors’ approach is to couple these stories, many from the world of sports, with a scientific study or two, selected to make a particular argument about the origins of competitive fire. But far too often, on close reading, the stories do not make the point Bronson and Merryman hope to make — or don’t make it convincingly. Many readers will be left scratching their heads as they try to connect the science to the examples.

Consider another example, this one from baseball. Bronson and Merryman tell the story of Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner to make a point about the importance of birth order in sparking competitive fire. John “Hans” Wagner was born in 1874, the fourth of five brothers, and, as every baseball fan knows, went on to have a brilliant career, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He excelled at all aspects of the game, including hitting and fielding, but the authors focus on his base running. Wagner held numerous records for stealing bases — the authors say because he was a younger brother rather than first-born. They cite evidence that younger brothers are more daring and aggressive — greater risk takers — on the base path.

Do the authors really want us to believe that little Hans Wagner became the immortal Honus Wagner because he was the fourth son out of five? They must, or this lengthy bit of biography would not be included. But it’s perplexing. Even if one accepts the link between birth order and risk-taking — and it’s far from proven — this analysis reduces Wagner’s all-star accomplishments to one possible influence by the exclusion of many, many other possible influences, including physical prowess, and concentration, hard work and grit.

You see my point. One problem, I believe — and it’s a serious one — lies with the topic itself. Competitive fire is not a scientific concept, and it keeps shape-shifting in this analysis. Here it’s derring-do, and there it’s excellence in performance, and here it’s simply winning. Bronson and Merryman say they can tell us how to acquire this trait, but in fact there are few useful lessons here. That’s because competitiveness is ubiquitous, the essence of the human condition, manifest in every board room, every family, every classroom, every sporting arena — and often in less-than-admirable ways.

Scientists have been asking nuanced questions about competiveness and competition for many years, and they have some answers, but the answers are rarely tidy or complete — and almost never captured in an anecdote. What’s more, when you strip away the stories, Bronson and Merryman’s science writing is uneven. They explain some influences with admirable clarity — home-field advantage, for example — but they are a bit wide-eyed and reductionist when it comes to the importance of genetics in competiveness. These are all variables that might affect competitiveness under certain circumstances, but in the end they do not add up to a new understanding of “the science of winning and losing.”

bookworld@washpost.com

Wray Herbert , the author of “On Second Thought,” writes the “We’re Only Human” blog.

TOP DOG The Science of Winning and Losing By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman Twelve. 335 pp. $27.99

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