Some of my best revelations have come while I was peering at my reflection in a pool of sweat. Like the one that hit me recently, as the perspiration rolled off my face and collected in a small puddle on the yoga mat under where I held a shaky plank: I am a competitive monster.
My gym had recently begun offering boot-camp classes during the time slot when I normally had a one-on-one session, so I decided to give one a try. Despite my propensity to appear as if I’d just tried on my body for the first time while exercising, I strode into the session feeling good — everyone else, I suspected, would be in awe of the strength and stamina I was about to display.
That confidence evaporated as soon as the class began and everyone started doing pull-ups.
From that point on, every boot camp became a silent contest between me and everyone else in the group. If April did 25 reps, I had to do 25 reps. If Brandon held a plank for one minute, I’d feel like a failure if I didn’t sustain the position for one minute and one second. I even went to the gym more often because I didn’t want to seem less dedicated.
Psychologists have a name for what I was going through: the Kohler Effect, or the urge to not be the weakest link. Research has shown that social comparison in athletics — including team sports and even exercise video games — helps drive us more than if we partook in the same activities solo. One 2012 study, for example, found that weaker members on collegiate swim and track & field relay teams made greater gains in effort over time than their faster and stronger counterparts. (On the flip side, a lack of drive in a fitness gathering is known as social loafing.)
Often, this motivational push is subconscious. You may be totally aware that others in your class have a bit more stamina, but researchers are less certain if this serves as direct inspiration. “When we ask them if they had a particular objective — to outperform their partner, to keep up with their partner, not to fall too far behind their partner — they usually say no,” says psychologist Norbert Kerr, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University who’s studied the Kohler Effect in group exercise settings. “So my current best guess is that there may be little or no conscious awareness of the processes that produce the Kohler Effect.”
Those in your spin class or ultimate frisbee team don’t have to share your same physical characteristics in order to get the competitive juices flowing, either. Age and weight similarities don’t seem to make much of a difference in the power of the Kohler Effect. More important are the social dynamics of the group — liking the people you’re working out with can be an especially positive motivator, Kerr says.
It’s possible the Kohler Effect can backfire if a person becomes discouraged by continually finding themselves at the bottom of the athletic totem pole, though researchers haven’t yet pinpointed what the breaking point is. “In some studies we see such discouragement,” Kerr says, and “in others we don’t.” So, while the thought of being the newbie at a fitness class may seem intimidating, it just might be the key to getting a better workout. Maybe the key — something my competitive-monster self would also do well to remember — is not to pick a point of comparison that’s too far out of reach.