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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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