Allow These Two Olympic Runners to Demonstrate the Motivational Powers of Belonging to a Team

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Amy Crag, Shalane Flanagan
Amy Cragg, left, congratulates Shalane Flanagan, right, as she crosses the finish line.Photo: Kelvin Kuo/AP

Over the long weekend, NBC aired what is essentially the Super Bowl of American running: the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Distance running is typically thought of as an individual sport, but the race also happened to inadvertently demonstrate a concept that’s recently been explored in the scientific literature — the incredible psychological power of feeling like part of a team.

From the gun, two runners stood out in the women’s race, Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg. The two are friends and training partners, and on Saturday they matched from head to toe: identical racing kits, identical visors, even identical running-shorts tan lines. The pair kept toward the front of the pack, eventually breaking away from the rest for an impressive lead toward the end of the race. And then Flanagan started to flag, her slowdown especially apparent next to Cragg’s consistently strong strides. But instead of leaving her friend in the dust, Cragg stayed by her side. She ran ahead and got two water bottles — one for herself, one for Flanagan — and didn’t leave Flanagan behind until the very end of the race. Even as she eventually pulled away, she kept turning her head, as if to make sure her friend was still chugging along.

Cragg finished first, and Flanagan held on to third, securing her own ticket to Rio in August. Some have speculated that if it weren’t for Cragg’s encouragement, Flanagan may have fallen behind or dropped out entirely. It was a memorable example of the motivational power that comes from having a teammate, something organizational psychologists have recently begun to explore, with some surprising results. Recently, for example, five experiments conducted by Stanford University psychologists showed that there is a weird power in simply feeling as if you are part of a team, even if you are in fact working on your own.

For the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers gave one group of three to five people a tough task — an unsolvable anagram — and told them they would be working together on the assignment. They briefly met their partners and then headed to separate rooms to work on the task alone; they would receive handwritten notes from this mysterious teammate throughout the experiment. These were really notes written by the experimenters, which meant that everyone was actually working alone. Another group of people was told from the start that they’d be working alone on the anagram.

In the end, those who believed they were working with a team worked nearly 50 percent longer on the puzzle than those who had been told they were working on their own. The people assigned to teams also told the researchers that they found the puzzle more fun, and more interesting, than those who were in the loner condition. And this, the researchers argued, suggests that the mere idea that one is working with a group can increase intrinsic motivation — that is, inner drive to finish the work, and internal satisfaction at doing the job well. 

This idea of feeling like part of a team, but truly working on your own, was almost perfectly modeled by Cragg and Flanagan during the trials. They identified as a team of two, each of them separately telling interviewers before the race that it wouldn’t be the same if one of them made the team without the other. But, of course, the marathon really is at heart an individual sport, making this pair’s race experience that day an unusual combination of autonomy and togetherness. There are plenty of reasons long-distance runners do what they do; perhaps this, for these particular two, is another one.