Why we should all fear failure

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

At one point in Ben Ainslie’s first heat he dropped to 11th place. As other boats sped past him, the on-board camera showed him looking more and more put out. But then the sailors changed direction, moving against the wind, and Ainslie began to recover ground. He worked his way up the stretch through sheer strength, moving from tenth to ninth to eighth (although his expression didn’t vary), and finishing the heat in second place.

After winning a gold medal overall (his fourth in four Olympics), he wrote in the Telegraph: “The pressure on me in the build-up was intense. For months – years – I kept getting told I was going to win. No matter how many times I said it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, people kept building me up. That begins to have an effect on you no matter how focused you try to remain.”

As a defending champion, you're in the unpleasant position of trying not to lose, rather than simply trying to win. Yet the effect might not be a bad one. Economists talk about the principle of “loss aversion” – the theory that we care much more about losing than making an equivalent gain. The indignity of being in 11th place at the first mark prompted Ainslie to find a sudden source of strength, and it seems the pressure to defend a title generally might give sports champions an extra motivational nudge.

The economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer studied this in golf – a sport that will incidentally make a return to the Olympics in 2016. In golf, it is fairly easy to see how you’re doing at each stage of the game, as the number of strokes needed to make a par is fixed for each hole. When a player approaches a hole, he might either be putting to avoid a stroke over par (a bogey) or putting to gain a stroke under par (a birdie).

The researchers looked at 2.5 million near-identical putts by 421 professional golfers (no mean feat) and found that players performed better when trying to avoid a bogey, or a loss, even though the motion of the club was exactly the same.  They calculated that if Tiger Woods had performed equally well for birdies as he did bogeys, he would have improved his earnings by $1m per season. Players fight harder, they concluded, to avoid losses than they do to make gains.

Odd thinking

This strange, asymmetrical thinking is evident in other areas, too, but it isn’t always a good thing. A 2003 study by Ernst Fehr and Lorenz Goette showed how bicycle messengers make silly economic choices just to avoid the feeling of missing their daily target. On days when they are paid more commission per hour, they reach their target earnings quickly and knock off early. On days when pay is low they stay out much later. This isn’t logical. They should stay out longer on days when business is good, and take time off on the slow days. They can’t help themselves, though – they are programmed to focus on losses.

One final example: as Chris Adams of the Financial Times has noticed, Twitter’s attention to the markets seems to rise in inverse proportion to the markets themselves. Bad news is always more interesting than good.

Ben Ainslie. Photograph, Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.