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Right hormone-gene mix fuels society's winners

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Top Dog

The Science of Winning and Losing

By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Twelve, 240 pages, $30

THE courier Federal Express was about to be stamped dead on arrival. Founder Fred Smith was down to his last $5,000.

Betting it all on blackjack at a Las Vegas casino, Smith won enough to pay the next fuel bill, keep his jets in the air and his fledgling company alive.

You would think such risky behaviour would drive his employees into finding other jobs. Instead, many workers deferred cashing their paycheques, drivers trained their wives to take over their routes if necessary and some pilots paid airport fees with their personal credit cards.

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing is filled with these counter-intuitive anecdotes as authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman parse hundreds of physiology, psychology and business studies to identify the ingredients of a winner.

Their breezy, accessible style is backed up with impeccable references to peer-reviewed journals and authoritative books.

Bronson has written half a dozen books, including What Should I Do With My Life? Merryman has written for the Washington Post, Newsweek and others. Their previous collaboration, NurtureShock, was a bestseller in 2009.

The results of many of the studies are so contrary to common beliefs, that when initial results contradicted their hypotheses, bewildered researchers questioned their data, sometimes ordering new tests.

Among the villains to undergo an extreme makeover is testosterone. The hormone, present seven times more in males than females, is blamed, even by many guilt-ridden men, for everything from fist fights to war.

Not entirely fair, according to the most recent research.

Testosterone increases motivation, whatever the objective, so while it does help boxers and soldiers, it also helps chess nerds win tournaments and surgeons perform complicated cancer surgery.

The COMT gene turns people into warriors or worriers.

The warriors win the Olympics, create music and invent new products.

The worriers cobble together the long-term structures and processes to make the warriors' dreams achievable.

The world needs both.

Despite the key role played by the gene, the authors caution against believing that genetics alone determines who we become.

Instead, the process is much more subtle, as genes, parents, siblings, peer groups and social environment all play off each other to create what sports psychologists call the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF.)

Getting into one's zone is different for everyone. Telling someone to calm down or not get angry is good advice for some, but absolutely wrong for others.

Stress, anxiety, fear and competition bring out the best in them, and provide the best results for society, but only if their environment encourages achievement.

The authors cite the former East Germany as the prime example of how the deadening hand of government control smothered even the most creative and potentially productive citizens.

However, given the authors' use of many other Olympic anecdotes, mostly glorifying American athletes, it would seem only fair that they somehow explain the many Olympic medals won by East German athletes. What was different for them?

Readers looking at the title and expecting a how-to on winning promotion or love should be reminded that the book is pop psychology, but not self-help.

Figuring out how to improve your own "psychoendocrine cocktail" so that you have more of the hormones that work with your genes and environment is up to you.

How you respond to that challenge is your first clue.

Donald Benham is director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J8

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