July 5, 2006 -- -- How do you handle defeat? It depends on whether you're a wolf or a sheep.
If underneath that calm exterior you have the domineering demeanor of a wolf, you're going to hate defeat.
But if you're really a sheep, you're more likely to greet defeat with a measure of joy, or at least relief.
That's the basic finding of a research project at the University of Michigan designed to see how the desire to hold power over others affects someone's ability to accept defeat.
About 50 people, mostly students at the university, were divided into "wolves" and "sheep" based on their performance on a standardized test. They also were tested for the presence of stress hormones before and after the test.
Not surprisingly, the wolves hated losing. But not the sheep.
"As our results show, one man's poison is another man's cake," said psychology professor Oliver Schultheiss, who conducted the same study earlier in Germany and found the same results. "The power-hungry wolves among our participants were hit hardest by defeat, whereas the sheep couldn't care less about being beaten.
"This runs counter to the idea that everybody likes coming out at the top of the heap," he added. "That's a really surprising finding for us."
Michelle Wirth, who is working on her doctorate under Schultheiss, said the results underscore the fact that winning is everything for some people and a burden for others.
"There are people who have no desire to have power over others, almost to the degree that they are afraid of it," Wirth said. "It's not a comfortable situation for them, and they are not used to it."
Wirth, Schultheiss and Katy Welsh, co-authors of a report on the research in a recent issue of the journal Hormones and Behavior, relied on a standardized test that has been used for at least half a century to measure someone's desire to have an impact on others or rule over them.
"We bring subjects into the lab, two at a time, who are strangers, and we give them this little contest," Wirth said. The participants do not know what the researchers are trying to measure.
The contest consists of looking at still photographs of people interacting with each other. The participants are told to write a short script to go along with each photograph. They have about five minutes to do that.
Then one person is declared the winner and the other the loser.
Using standardized coding techniques, each script is analyzed, line by line, to see which participants are more like wolves and which are more like sheep. Where one person might see a photo of two people having a polite discussion, another might see those same two people arguing fiercely.
Before the contest, Wirth measured the levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in the body in response to stress. After the contest, she again measured the level of cortisol, which has been implicated in depression and memory loss.
As expected, cortisol soared among the wolves who had lost. It was unchanged among the sheep who lost. But it rose among sheep who won.
"They [the sheep] didn't expect to be put in a position of dominance over the other person," Wirth said.
But since the subjects were college kids, wouldn't they be expected to be more like wolves than sheep? After all, college is a very competitive atmosphere.
Wirth said that flies in the face of numerous studies.
"I don't think college students really differ," she said. "As a matter of fact, I would think they would be a little less [wolfish] because they are younger people. They haven't really come into their own yet."
That would suggest it's the marketplace that brings out the wolf in us.