My colleague Dave Clemens at HR Café has reported on some interesting research from The Wharton School. It turns out that the old Avis ads were true: If you’re Number Two, you really do try harder.

The research looked at more than 6,500 basketball games and found an interesting pattern. Teams that were a little bit behind at halftime were more likely to win the game.

Not surprisingly, teams that trailed by several points were likely to lose. Teams with a six-point halftime deficit lost 80% of the time. But when they trailed by just one point, they went on to win 51.3% of the time.

That may not seem like a big margin, but it’s significant if you’re a statistician. Or a gambler. Presumably the teams that were a point apart at halftime were evenly matched in terms of skill. So the difference clearly had to do with motivation. The players who were ahead felt they had a little breathing room (albeit just one point), while those who were a little behind were motivated to dig deeper to pull out a win. Those who were way behind, by contrast, were demotivated. Squeezing out an extra couple of points wouldn’t get them a win, so they didn’t try.

The researchers also looked to see if the pattern would hold up in other contexts. So they recruited people to perform a mind-numbing task: typing letters on a keypad. It’s easy to see how motivation would flag. But when researchers told subjects that they were lagging a bit behind expectations, they too upped their game.

So what does this mean for motivating salespeople?

It suggests that goals, to be motivational, need to be hard but achievable. So, for example, if it’s the middle of the year and your reps are a “little behind” their targets, that could be a good thing. In fact, it’s something you should spotlight: “Hey, folks, we’re a little bit off the pace, so we’re going to have to really pick it up in the second half.”

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