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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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org