Summary of The Winner Effect by Ian H. Robertson

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  • Post last modified:February 1, 2024


  • The more you win, the more likely you are to win in the future.
  • The more you lose, the more likely you are to lose in the future.
  • Winners are recognized for the amount of power they and losers, for their lack of it.
  • Social status, money, and authority are all forms of power.
  • Everyone wants power. We all want to win. The need to win is as powerful as the need for sex.
  • If you remain powerless and at the bottom of the hierarchy, you will be sick, and you will die young.
  • If you rise to the top of the hierarchy, you will be healthy, and you will die old.
The winner effect book cover

Summary: 10 min

Book reading time: 6h46

Score: 7/10

Book published in: 2012

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Mystery of Picasso’s Son

Chapter 2: The Puzzle of the Changeling Fish

Chapter 3: The Enigma of Bill Clinton’s Friend

Chapter 4: The Mystery of the Oscars

Chapter 5: The Riddle of the Flying CEOs

Chapter 6: The Winning Mind


What The Winner Effect Talks About

The winner effect is a book written by Ian H. Robertson. It discusses different consequences of power (or the lack thereof) on the brain of those who have it (or don’t). From social hierarchies to dictators, the author gives a complete picture of what power is and how it manifests itself both in life and in people.

The content is by far 10/10. It pretty much explains 99% of the reasons why people act like they do in society.

Did you ever hear that lifespan could be mapped along London’s subway stations?

Well, this book explains why.

It also explains why you hate your job, why everyone hates micro-management, why some people become tyrannical and others don’t, etc.

While the content is 10/10, the delivery is 4/10.

The book is annoying to read and disorganized. The author jumps from one topic to another and delay with unnecessary material the answer he promised to give you.

It could have been an interesting 2-hour book. Instead, it was a long 6-hour manuscript.

Additionally, the author overestimate the impact of his theories and settles for oversimplification.

For example, he attributes Britain’s decision to go to Irak to “one testosterone-filled prime-minister.” He also wrote things like “Napoleon and Hitler were both primed by easy victories, pumped up with testosterone and aggressively hungry for more and greater conquests.”


There are also mistakes. The author speaks of Slobodan Milošević as the “President of Yugoslavia” in 1999. Unfortunately for him, Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992. Milošević was in fact the president of Serbia.

Likewise, Hitler did not consider the Russians as sub-human like the author claims (it was the Polish, and well, many others.)

Do I recommend this book? No. Too messy, too much fluff, too annoying.

Do I recommend this summary? Absolutely yes. This should be mandatory reading for anyone that need to play power games to succeed in society.


This book is significant enough for a discussion section at the end.

Summary of The Winner Effect Written by Ian Robertson

Chapter 1: The Mystery of Picasso’s Son

Paulo Picasso, Pablo’s son, was as much of a loser as his father was successful. This isn’t an anomaly. Many children from successful parents aren’t successful themselves, and the other way around.

There are two reasons for that.

  1. Successful parents don’t spend time with their kids – and unsuccessful parents do. Children need enough nurturing from their parents to be successful themselves.
  2. Kids of successful parents struggle because outachieving their parents seems difficult. These parents often craft the narrative that they have always been great, and hide the difficult path that led them to their success. The child, knowing he is not as great as his parents, becomes then unmotivated to try to achieve anything, which leads to nihilism.

Successful people have a physical drive to succeed akin to the drive to eat or drink.

That’s what you need. People that do stuff for a mere extrinsic motivation like money don’t go as far as people that do stuff for its own sake.

This is why many billionaires keep on working even though they could retire: they’re not in it for the money, but for the pleasure to achieve.

Money isn’t that good of a motivator. In fact, people that know that they will inherit a lot of money at some point have no intrinsic motivation to succeed or achieve anything.

This is why Bill Gates won’t give his kids too much money.

When striving for a big goal, consider that it will take time and won’t be guaranteed. This is why it is important to celebrate the small victories on your way there. Focusing on your big goal only will make you depressed otherwise.

Psychologists found out that the most-driven people didn’t set unreachable goals. They set achievable goals, achieved them, then set new achievable goals. Their repetitive victories motivated them further.

No one is born with the intrinsic need to succeed: this is need is learned (taught).

This is why parents and teachers must encourage kids to pursue the learning of a musical instrument or the practice of sports for them to do so: it’s rarely gratifying in the beginning.

Always praise children for their efforts – never for their intelligence.

Here’s why.

  1. When you praise children for their intelligence, they think that everything will come to them naturally because “they’re smart”. As a result, they don’t try anything new and don’t make any effort for anything.
  2. They get scared to do anything. If they did something and failed, it’d mean they’re not as intelligent as they think they are, and their identity would unravel completely.
  3. Because they are “intelligent” hence “better than others”, they see everything through “performance” and beating other people. This is bad for their social life.
  4. Everything they do is putting their ego to the test. When they don’t think they can win, they don’t compete.
  5. Children told they’re bright don’t want to learn. They don’t accept that to be great, you need to suck first.

How do you free them from that? You tell them the truth – that they’re not as intelligent as they think. When you do, you relieve them of the burden to fit the super-smart person. Now they’re free to fail and “be themselves”.

Chapter 2: The Puzzle of the Changeling Fish

There is a fish in East Africa whose males are split into two types: losers, and winners. Winner fish are big and bright, and they aggressively chase away the loser fish that are bleak, grey, and passive.

But sometimes, a loser fish will suddenly “wake up” and become a big, aggressive, and bright winner fish.


Since the alpha fish is bright, it gets more often eaten by the birds who can spot them. If a beta fish is in the neighborhood of an alpha fish when that happens, the beta fish will inherit the territory of the alpha fish.

Getting a new territory secretes testosterone in the fish’s brain and instantly makes it an alpha too.

Winning triggers testosterone which makes you alpha, which in turn helps you win.

Traders, for example, earn more money when they have higher testosterone than not.

But it’s not all. Football fans have less testosterone when their team loses a game than when it wins it.

What does it mean? That winning and losing is a vicious circle. The more you win, the more you win. The more you lose, the more you lose.

image 28
Testosterone levels in winners VS losers

H. G. Landau, a psychologist, suggested this theory which was letter put to the test with fish (again).

Scientists put fish in three fish bowls. One fish was alone, other fish were with bigger fish, and other fish were with smaller fish.

The lonely fish became a beta fish, like the fish with bigger fish. The fish with smaller fish became alpha fish.

Why? Because winning triggers testosterone in your brain, which makes you stronger, which in turn helps you win. That’s the winner effect.

You have more chances to win if you have won before than if you have lost, but not in every context.

Mice, for example, only benefit from the winner effect when they fight on their territory. They don’t benefit from it if they fight on another’s mice territory.

So, winning depends on your area, be it physical area, or area of expertise.

We are contextual creatures and are heavily influenced by our environment. For example, heroin-addict who fought in Vietnam did not remain addicts when they went back to America.

The environment was just too different.

-> the environment plays a tremendous role.

Red, for example, makes animals more aggressive.

Sports teams wearing red win more often. Monkeys wearing red are more aggressive. And birds with red colors are more aggressive too.

The body and mind are linked. Being happy makes you smile…but smiling also makes you happy. Feeling dominant makes you extend your body so that it takes more space. But expanding your body also makes you more confident.

Chapter 3: The Enigma of Bill Clinton’s Friend

“Keeping mum” is an expression that means “not telling”. It’s a social phenomenon in big organizations that helps individuals escape sanctions for mistakes they have made.

There are two types of hierarchies: flat, and steep.

image 29
Steep VS flat hierarchies.

The higher you are, the more power you have. The more power you have, the more testosterone you have.

The more testosterone you have, the more victories you will have. The more you win…the more you win.

image 30

People at the bottom don’t have power, so they don’t have testosterone, so they don’t win and they don’t rebel.

image 31

This explains why most revolutions are undertaken by the middle class, not the bottom class. The bottom class, because they are at the bottom, is more likely to be harmless.

Power changes behavior.

  • Power makes you less likely to see events from other perspectives than your own.
  • Power gets you to focus on goals, not on dangers (it blinds to risks).
  • Power makes you feel like you can control more stuff than you actually can.

This is why power is dangerous if you don’t check your ego.

This also explains why winning can not keep on going eternally. At some point, the winner makes a mistake due to overconfidence and loses.

While winning impacts your brain and personality, losing does so too.

Winners focus on goals because they’re protected and can afford to do so. Losers are vulnerable, so they focus on danger. This is why losers are more likely to spot dangers in general than winners are.

And this is why society needs them both. We need winners to move forward, and losers to keep us safe.

It’s also addictive, and the extent to which one is addicted to power depends on their genes (some crave it more than others).

The hungrier for power people are, the more “ballsy” they act. But the hungrier they are, the more they suffer when they lose.

Chapter 4: The Mystery of the Oscars

Oscar and Nobel’s winners live on average longer than Oscar and Nobel nominees. People in the tallest tombs also happened to have lived the longest. And high-ranking civil servants live longer than low-ranking civil servants.


Because of the stress induced by chances of social exclusion.

Two variables increase or decrease your chances to be excluded from the group.

  1. Your place in the social hierarchy.
  2. The control you exercise over your life.

People at the top of the hierarchy have the lowest chance to be excluded from society. As a result, they’re not stressed by their social status which enables them to live longer. Since Oscar and Nobel’s winners acquire a forever status, they can finally rest knowing that their achievements will defacto always include them in the hierarchy.

Humans are extremely sensitive to their social status. When we meet someone higher up in the hierarchy, our brain pumps blood in the part that takes care of self-awareness. This is why many people are not themselves when they meet someone of particularly high status.

Side note: one of the best ways to decrease self-awareness is to drink alcohol.

The second thing we talked about is control. We like control because control helps us protect ourselves against the risk of being excluded from the group.

When you have control over your work or your life, you don’t depend on someone else for it, so there is less risk, so you are less stressed, so you live longer.

Understand: don’t rent, own.

Unfortunately, few people manage to claim back control after being deprived of it. This is called learned helplessness.

Eg: animals that are subject to electrical shocks without the power to stop them the first time, do not stop the shocks when subject to them the second time, even though they have the power to do so.

The same effect applies to people. If you are deprived of your power to defend yourself, your brain will remember your helplessness and will stop looking for an escape.

The extent to which you think you have control over your life also influences your psyche.

For example, people that believe they have maximum control and that everything in life is a question of how hard they work are less likely to submit to torture, while people who believe the opposite are more likely to.

One of the most powerful stressors for humans isn’t financial insecurity, but social-evaluative threat.

Social-evaluative threat is the fear to be judged inferior because of who we are. This is the shame we may feel when we meet someone of higher status than us. Downgrading status (losing all of your money, for example) has the same painful effect, both on us and animals.

Feelings of rejection create a form of toxic stress that impacts how long (and how healthy) we live.

Because humans were never meant to survive alone, they have developed these mechanisms to ensure they’d remain within the group.

Chapter 5: The Riddle of the Flying CEOs

Dopamine is a hormone that compels us to do the things that trigger it. When you earn money in a casino, for example, dopamine surges. You feel good, so you feel compelled to gamble again.

When dopamine crashes, you feel bad, so you feel compelled to stop doing what you did and to do something to feel good again.

We don’t all react to dopamine equally. Some people with one or two copies of the allele DRD4 have certain genes that trigger more dopamine in their brains than other people.

These DRD4 people take more risks and are more impulsive.

Dopamine is triggered in all sorts of situations. It is also triggered by testosterone.

What does that mean?

People that win have more testosterone, as we have said already. More testosterone creates more dopamine. Dopamine makes you crave more dopamine which things like sex, money, and drugs provide. This creates more testosterone and the whole cycle starts again.

image 33
This could be called the “Wolf of Wall Street” cycle.

Money, sex, power or cocaine strongly and repeatedly trigger surges of dopamine in the brain’s reward system which risks unleashing the unquenchable cravings of the addict.

This is why people such as traders often are horny drug addicts with no sense of reality.

Obviously, the cycle above cannot go on forever. People with a lot of dopamine in their brains perform significantly less well than people who do not.

This means that the higher the reward you give someone to do something, the worst of a job they will do to get the reward.

We don’t all crave power the same way. Some have higher needs for power than others. These people have sex more often than people who don’t.

They’re also more likely to cheat.

When someone gets a lot of power or money (the brain doesn’t distinguish them), they become more open to taking risks, which may be why companies pay their CEOs so much in the first place.

Too much dopamine is not good – it leads to schizophrenia. On the other hand, not enough dopamine leads to Parkinson’s.

When the brain receives too much dopamine, it gets addicted and needs more and more of it, but this isn’t possible. Lack of dopamine eventually leads to apathy, anxiousness, and over-concern about risks.

Power makes people care less about what others think. It makes them selfish and lack empathy. Even the tiniest taste of temporary power can make us more egocentric and less inclined to consider other perspectives.

If we arouse power feelings in otherwise ordinary people, they begin to see others as objects.

Power makes people more inclined to insist that others must follow the rules while making them less inclined to follow the rules themselves. It also makes them more hypocritical (they’re more likely to denounce someone for doing something they do too).

While women desire power as much as men, men are more attuned, interested, and sensitive to who holds power in a room. They will more easily remember social hierarchies.

There are two types of power: p power, and s power. P power is power for personal gains, while s power is power relative to the achievement of a community goal.

Eg: if you want to end world hunger, you need control of where the food goes (and of what people do during their day). This is s power.

Women are much more motivated by s power than men are. Furthermore, s power mitigates p power, so women are less likely to be motivated by personal gains than men are.

S power decreases testosterone, which decreases the dopamine that leads to addiction to power. This explains why there aren’t many women dictators in the world. Women simply don’t get addicted to power for personal gains like men do.

High amounts of money make you less helpful and less generous.

Chapter 6: The Winning Mind

When people are repeatedly pressured to do stuff they don’t agree with, they often change their opinions to fit the action rather than the opposite.

That’s what happens to people with Stockholm Syndrome.

Likewise, if you get someone that doesn’t like you to do something nice to you, they will start to like you.

People don’t act according to their opinion, but change their opinions according to their actions.

image 34

Whether we like it or not, power is at the heart of all our relationships. It is impossible to have a meaningful relationship with someone without having some power over that person, and that person must also have some power over you.

Parents that use a lot of power over their kids make their kids antisocial as they age, as the kids, due to being deprived of power, need to have power over other people.

People that grow up with no power usually end up seeking it in a dictatorial fashion later on.

Power transforms people who feel inadequate in the role of a boss, into bullies.

This is because people are more attacked when they are at the top, which creates stress. So they vent their stress on the people under them.

So, what makes a winner?

The desire to win is the desire for the ego to survive. However, none of us exist in our own individuality. We need others to survive.

As a result, a real winner is someone who personally benefits from the power, AND who makes other people benefit from it too.

Unfortunately, these people are rare. This is why we need to make sure that the people at the top don’t have unlimited, unchecked power.

Conclusion: you are the sum of your personal, social, and working environment. Power will transform you. Lack of it will do too.

For more summaries, head to


I have written about why tall people succeeded but I didn’t have all of the answers at the time.

Now, I do.

I have always wondered why successful people were successful in most things while losers were losers in most things too.

In the article, I take the example of tall people. I questioned why tall people are more likely to be rich, handsome, muscular, dating, etc than short people are.

I proposed that their height gave them a psychological advantage of dominance which made any tasks less scary and daunting than they would appear to a short person (the taller you are, the less impressive the dragon seems to be). The idea was that their physical dominance made it simply easier to survive in society (while providing other advantages, like seduction).

Now I know that my theory was correct…but it was only a part of the answer.

I missed two things: first, height creates a hierarchy (too obvious for me to see it). Second, the hierarchy tends to keep the top people at the top, and the bottom people at the bottom.

Since success is a virtuous cycle, tall people, at the top of the “height hierarchy”, benefit from their “tall success” to rack in the testosterone that further helps them in their future endeavors.

Let’s give an example. Being tall helps you be more successful in your dating life, which helps you be more successful in your social life, which helps you be more successful in your academic life, which helps you be more successful in your professional life, which helps you be more successful in your financial life, which helps you live longer, etc.

This isn’t a virtuous cycle. It’s an ascendant line.

image 35

One thing leads you to a better one which leads you to a better one, etc.

I do realize that you can be healthy, get friends, and good grades without being tall. This isn’t my point!

My point is that being tall gives you a huge advantage because you start at the top.

In a society that would force equity, you would tax people based on their height and redistribute the taxes to the shorter people.

Let’s pause for a moment. I have the reputation of being a libertarian conservative writer, opposed to equity and the monstrosity of wok€n€$$.

I am.

But I am also dedicated to writing about life as it is, and this is a real thing. Conservatives like to say that life really is “what you make of it” and that we all start with the same chances in the beginning.

This isn’t true.

I, by no means, advocate for some sort of compensation for short, or ugly people for that matter.

I advocate for truth. I advocate for a civil discourse that says that people aren’t born equal, and that this entails that lower-ranked people will have to work harder than their higher-ranked counterparts to achieve an equal level of success.

That is it.

Fortunately, there are many ways to get to the top of the hierarchy.

The criteria you’re judged on are:

  • How much money you have.
  • Your place in “a” hierarchy (CEO of a big company, prime-minister, Olympic Games ranking, etc)
  • How famous you are
  • The number of social media followers.
  • Beauty
  • Height
  • How successful you are in your field, and how successful your field is (someone at the top of “acting” will have more status than someone at the top of “dart-throwing”, because movies entertain more than darts).

In a way, this book is also good news as it provides you with a way to get out of the bottom and make it to the top.

That way is winning.

A small victory secretes a bit of testosterone and dopamine which hooks you up for your next win, which hooks you up for your next win…until you reach the top.

And as with everything, the decision to do so, remains in your hands.

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