There has been a lot of talk in this FIFA World Cup about ‘momentum’. For England to lose against Belgium gave them easier draws in the next stages, but the worry was that they were losing ‘momentum’? Teams tend to have runs of winning, and runs of losing. Success seems to breed success, and losing can also become a bad habit that is difficult to break out of.
This is not just speculation. Solid analysis of patterns of results supports the view that winning and losing can both become entrenched and habitual. Buy why? Why is a team that has won once more likely to win again? Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen discuss this in an interesting article in Psychology Today.
It is a great question, but I am not entirely persuaded by the answer. They base their piece on an academic article by Danny Cohen-Zada and colleagues that highlighted the fact the winning streak phenomenon is found more in male than female athletes. That leads them to put the winning streak phenomenon down to testosterone. That could be one factor, but I am not convinced it is the main one.
For one thing, it seems very doubtful that the winning streak phenomenon is confined to sport; in fact it seems to be a feature of performance in many areas of life that once patterns of behaviour get established they tend to persist. This is not only about sport. Churches, for example, tend to get into a pattern of growing or declining; once established it is hard to turn that trend around.
Also, we should not too quickly assume that it is all about the effect of winning or losing. The background factors that lead to a team winning or losing on one occasion still apply next time, and may contribute to similar results on the next occasion. But I do actually think there is more going on than that, and that doing something once makes it more likely to occur again.
The most general academic theory about this is the concept of ‘morphic resonance’ developed by the radical biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, for example in his book, The Presence of the Past. His proposal is essentially that behaviour creates pathways, and that once a pathway is established it is more likely to be followed on future occasions. It is no objection that you these pathways are invisible. Science has always invoked invisible forces, like gravity, to explain otherwise puzzling phenonenona.
Of course, biological factors play a part as well, and perhaps especially in male sport. But it may not all be testosterone. Collective endorphin release in a winning team could also be important. However, I want to caution against the crude biological reductionism that tries to explain human behaviour in terms of a single biological factor like testosterone. There is a usually a complex network of mutually interacting factors at work.