Selfish Play Increases during High-Stakes NBA Games and Is Rewarded with More Lucrative Contracts
Eric Luis Uhlmann & Christopher Barnes
PLoS ONE, April 2014
Abstract: High-stakes team competitions can present a social dilemma in which participants must choose between concentrating on their personal performance and assisting teammates as a means of achieving group objectives. We find that despite the seemingly strong group incentive to win the NBA title, cooperative play actually diminishes during playoff games, negatively affecting team performance. Thus team cooperation decreases in the very high stakes contexts in which it is most important to perform well together. Highlighting the mixed incentives that underlie selfish play, personal scoring is rewarded with more lucrative future contracts, whereas assisting teammates to score is associated with reduced pay due to lost opportunities for personal scoring. A combination of misaligned incentives and psychological biases in performance evaluation bring out the “I” in “team” when cooperation is most critical.