Fear of failure and performance

To what extent can we use data from a television show to make inferences about the impact of fear of failure on performance? To discuss this question, consider a recent study using data from MasterChef to examine the impact of fear of failure on performance. Here is the abstract:

We use new individual-level data from MasterChef, a television show in the United States in order to objectively capture situations of fear of failure. We codify situations in which the contestants are on the verge of being eliminated from competition and situations where they explicitly express fear of failing. These new data have the distinct advantage of being purely objective. We cover ten seasons, from 2010 to 2020 and include nearly 200 observations to study the role of fear of failure on performance. Using ordinary least squares, we show that extreme fear of failure is associated with an increase of two to four positions in the final placement of the cooking competition. This positive link between fear of failure and performance tends to contradict the conventional wisdom in both psychology and behavioral economics that such a link tends to be negative. Our findings are robust to broad changes in specification.

A working paper version of the paper is available here. I am a bit skeptical towards whether the study can ‘objectively capture situations of fear’ and I do not believe we can use this study to say anything meaningful about fear of failure and performance.

Here is a description of the key findings provided in the paper: “When using data from MasterChef we find that, on average, individuals that are on the verge of being eliminated, but are able to survive and stay in the competition, end up doing better in the final rankings, all else being equal. In particular, we find that the higher the number of times a contestant is put in this situation, the higher his or her final placement will be among all the contestants.”

There are a lot of problems with the paper, but to name the most important one: survivorship bias. When two people are on the verge of being eliminated, you are selecting on performance (the variable you want to explain). That is, the more times you end up in an ‘objective’ situation of fear, the further you are already making it into the competition.

Here is the definition of ‘fear of failure’ provided in the paper: “Number of times that the contestant placed among the bottom three plus the number of times that the individual survived a pressure test.” This variable is scaled from 0 to 12, with a person getting a score of 0 not surviving a pressure test and not be placed among the bottom three. It is no surprise that a person that never survived a pressure test (i.e., had no fear of failure), ended up with a worse final placement among all the contestants. But this is not saying anything about the impact of fear of failure on performance.

Let us also look at the description in the paper who experienced the maximum ‘fear of failure’: “Interestingly, the contestant who reached the maximum fear of failure ‘score’ placed eight times among the bottom three home cooks in cooking challenges and survived four pressure tests. This individual managed to finish fourth in the final placements in Season 5.” Should we infer that it is because of those situations that the contestant finished fourth? Or are they simply a proxy of making it far?

Importantly, the regression models also include a variable tapping into ‘positive reinforcement’. This variable is described as: “Total number of times that the contestant won a Mystery Box challenge plus an Elimination Test challenge plus a Team Challenge plus the number of times that the contestant ended up among the top three entries of any challenge.” Similarly, this variable has a statistically significant effect in the same direction as the fear of failure, leading me to conclude that they are both simply a measure of making it deep into the competition. And I am not convinced that simply controlling for ‘positive reinforcement’ will provide an unbiased estimate of the effect of fear of failure on performance.

I always enjoy a creative research design with some interesting data, but I am not convinced that the paper in question can say anything meaningful about how the fear of failure matter for performance. Neither in MasterChef or beyond.