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Why we should all fear failure

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Ben Ainslie. Photograph, Getty Images
Ben Ainslie. Photograph, Getty Images

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.