What makes sports rivalries different than other forms of competition? Edgar B. Herwick III, chief of WGBH’s Curiosity Desk, shares his insight.

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There’s just something about great sports rivalries — The Red Soxpitted against the Yankees or Duke basketball confronting UNC —that makes them seem more important than the season's other games. But do athletes really perform better when competing against their rivals? Or do the games just seem better because of heightened anticipation from fans?

If you’re positive that your home team performs at their best when facing off against crosstown rivals, you’re not crazy. Gavin J. Kilduff, an assistant professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has done studies that reach the same conclusion. So what makes rivalries different than your run-of-the-mill competition?

“There are three factors that really foster rivalries between individuals and also between organizations,” Kilduff explains. “Those would be similarity, repeated competition, and [contests that are] evenly matched or closely decided. “

The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson is one that fits all three categories, Herwick argues. The two were evenly matched — two of the best players in NBAhistory. They competed regularly, even facing off against each other at the college level. Plus, the two had a similar style of play. Last year, in an appearance on David Letterman, Johnson said of himself and Bird: “The way we played the game of basketball was exactly the same.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder that when Bird and Johnson faced each other they performed at their highest level. But Kilduff’s research has also shown that a rivalry can transcend the basketball court or the soccer field and become a being unto itself.

In that same David Letterman appearance, Bird described this phenomenon, saying, “It’s really all about the competition. I mean, even today, if we could do something to compete against each other I’d still like to do that.”

Kilduff says that the all-consuming nature of rivalries is what makes them so motivating — but it can also have a negative effect.

“It’s very much a double-edged sword,” he explains. “On the one hand it can promote greater motivation to performance — and I have data speaking to that … But on the other hand it can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with contest just against rivals that might obscure the bigger goals.”

We’ll just have to wait until the next time the Yankees visit Fenway to see which side of the double-edged sword prevails here in Boston. 

WATCH: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on David Letterman