Your research suggests that football and basketball teams avoid the risk of instant defeat, even if that risk could improve the chance of a win. How does this play out in daily life?

Avoiding an immediate loss at the expense of one’s ultimate goal can happen outside of sports. Think of a struggling business, and imagine there is a strategy that provides a better chance of surviving in the long run but would increase the chance of going under right now. That business might be reluctant to take the risk. 

Or think about cover-ups. There is an immediate cost to saying “I made a mistake.” But if you think through the consequences of a cover-up and the chance of getting caught, you might realize that fessing up right now gives you a better chance to get through the ordeal. 

How can people counteract this tendency?

People are focused on what’s happening right now and they’re more scared about losses than excited about gains. The myopia can be counteracted by taking a broader view. In sports, the goal is not to get to overtime; it’s to win the game. Force yourself into a broader perspective. 

There’s another explanation for this tendency, a more magical-thinking one: risks you don’t have to take seem riskier than risks you have to take. So think, if this were your only option, how would you evaluate your chance of success and failure? Now with those estimates in mind, do you want to do it?

Jane L. Risen is professor of behavioral science and John E. Jeuck Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth.

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