Culture & Society

The Cersei Effect: How Businesses Turn Colleagues into Backstabbers

New research shows that people with shared goals can get lured into “pseudo competitions” that hurt all involved.

May 15, 2019

| by Patrick J. Kiger


Illustration of a close up of a man’s shoes, which have been tied together. Credit: Alvaro Dominguez

Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez.

As HBO’s Game of Thrones approaches the end of its eight-season run on May 19, viewers are eager to find out if one of the show’s more ruthless characters will emerge victorious.

But while devious maneuvering and betrayal are effective on the fantasy continent of Westeros, they don’t work quite as well in the real world. Instead, research by Szu-chi Huang, an associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggests that cutthroat competitors who resort to sabotaging perceived rivals instead may end up undermining their own chance of achieving important goals.

Within companies, competition “is something that needs to be carefully structured and managed,” Huang explains. “It does increase engagement, which is good.” But it can also have destructive effects, especially if workers transform attainment of individual goals into a quest to prove that they’re better than the man or woman at the next desk, she says. Additionally, according to Huang, our fixation upon winning can spawn faulty beliefs that lead to inaccurate predictions of outcomes.

Those revelations are contained in two papers by Huang and collaborators, scheduled for publication later this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Huang says the new research was inspired by an earlier paper that she and colleagues published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2015. That study found that Weight Watchers participants tended to start out working together and encouraging one another. But as they got closer to their goals, they began to distance themselves from their peers and even stopped coming to meetings. While one possible explanation was that as subjects lost weight, they felt that they didn’t need the social support to continue, Huang was intrigued by an alternative possibility.

Losing Sight of the Original Goal

“We wondered if it was because they started to feel the pressure of competition,” she explains. “People may start to think, ‘I know I can lose weight, but it’s really about me losing more weight than the others or looking better or being healthier than them.’”

To test the behavioral effect of such imagined “pseudo competition,” Huang teamed with Stephanie C. Lin, a former marketing PhD student at Stanford GSB who is now an assistant professor at Singapore Management University, and Ying Zhang, a professor at Peking University. They devised experiments in which subjects took verbal creativity tests and played various games, with a goal of earning Amazon gift cards. A key element of the experiment was that participants were told that everyone who achieved a certain score would receive a gift card. The subjects also were paired with partners and given a chance to make moves that would affect their partners’ scores.


As people get closer to a goal, they end up focusing on the distance between them and their partners rather than their own distance to the goal.
Szu-chi Huang

What the researchers found was startling. As subjects got closer to achieving their individual goals, they had a greater tendency to do things to sabotage their partner — and to slack off when they thought they had the upper hand. Additionally, they tended to pick games in which they expected to do better than the partner, even if those choices resulted in a lower score for themselves, too.

“As people get closer to a goal, they may shift their focus,” Huang explains. “They end up focusing on the distance between them and their partners rather than their own distance to the goal.”

According to Huang, that sort of approach makes sense in a real competition, “where what determines winning is your relative position against another person. You can both suck, but if you get one point better than the other person, you still win.” In contrast, people who create pseudo competitions are acting illogically, because there’s no real prize in coming in first, and the imaginary zero-sum game only distracts them from achieving individual goals that are valuable and beneficial.

A Focus on Winning Biases Predictions

In a second paper, conducted by Huang, Daniella Kupor, who received her PhD from Stanford GSB in 2016 and is now an assistant professor at Boston University, and Melanie Brucks, a graduating PhD candidate at Stanford GSB who will join Columbia Business School as an assistant professor this fall, subjects who were asked to predict the outcomes of various contests tended to assume that their competitors’ intent to win would come true.

“When observers predict another individual’s outcome in a competition, they systematically overestimate the probability that the person will win,” Kupor explains. “This misprediction stems from a previously undocumented lay belief — the belief that other people generally achieve their intentions — which biases the observer’s forecast.”

Huang says that we tend to believe that competitors will be victorious because our expectations are rooted in perceptions shaped by cultural mythmaking that focuses upon winners. “When we watch contests, we frequently watch someone win,” she says. “The coverage of an Olympic event focuses on the winner, not the 99 percent who tried but lost. The media tends to feature success stories — the people who want to win and then do actually end up winning. That’s one potential reason why we have this belief that’s inaccurate. In reality, there are more people who intend to win but don’t succeed.”

Design Better In-House Contests

The two papers show the potential risks that internal competitions pose for companies, Huang says. An organization that relies upon individual goals or performance benchmarks to evaluate employees, for example, needs to be careful to design competitions and structure comparisons that thwart the efforts of some workers to sabotage their colleagues. Otherwise, saboteurs may bring down everyone’s numbers — including their own.

“A company could try to restructure the comparison by matching employees who are at different phases of their careers instead of the same phase, for instance through a mentorship system,” Huang says. “Or they could highlight the differences and uniqueness in each employee’s background, task, and project, and thus make the comparison less meaningful. All these things can help to reduce unnecessary competitive behaviors and the desire to sabotage.”

Similarly, she says, the tendency to equate intent with future victory can lead people to make poor choices in everything from investments to elections. When we assume a political candidate will win, we may reduce our support; overestimating a person’s chance to win can also lead to erroneous investment and betting decisions. Huang urges that more research is needed to find ways to mitigate such errant beliefs.

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