Did you take standardized tests to get into college? Like the SAT and ACT? How many people were in the room when you took the test? Does it matter? Research by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom Tor shows that it may matter a lot.
Less people = higher scores — Garcia and Tor first compared SAT scores for locations that had a lot of people in the room taking the test versus locations that had smaller numbers. They adjusted the scores to control for the educational budget in that region and other factors. Students who took the SAT test in a room with less people scored higher.
You’ll try harder if you have a good chance of winning — Garcia and Tor hypothesized that when there are just a few competitors, you (perhaps unconsciously) feel that you can come out on top, and so you try harder. And, the theory goes, when there are more people, then it is harder to assess where you stand and therefore you are not as motivated to try to come out on top. They called this the N-effect (N standing for number as in formulas).
10 versus 100 competitors — Garcia and Tor decided to test their theory in the lab. They asked students to complete a short quiz as quickly and accurately as possible. They were told that the top 20% would receive 5 US dollars. Group A was told that they were competing against 10 other students. Group B was told that they were competing against 100 other students. Participants in Group A completed the quiz significantly faster than the participants in Group B. The interesting thing is that there was no one actually in the room with them. They were just told that there were other people taking the test.
What do you think? Are you more motivated if there are just a few people you are competing against?
If you want to read the research:
Garcia, S., & Tor, A. (2009). The N effect: More competitors, less competition. Psychological Science. 20(7), 871-877.