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

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Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.