Why We Don't Go for It

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, June 18, 2007

This year's National Basketball Association playoffs recently provided not one but two examples of a very interesting facet of human decision making. Even if you are not a sports fan, these moments tell you something about human nature.

Case Study 1: In the closing seconds of the first game in the Eastern Conference finals, with Cleveland down two points to the Detroit Pistons, Cavaliers star LeBron James passed the ball for a three-point attempt when he could have gone for a two-point shot that would have tied the score. Donyell Marshall missed the three-pointer and Cleveland lost. James was criticized for trying to win the game instead of going for a safer play that would have sent the contest into overtime.

Case Study 2: In the opening moments of the second game in the NBA finals, James got into foul trouble in the matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, and Coach Mike Brown benched his star for most of the first quarter. Again, Cleveland ended up losing -- and Brown's decision was second-guessed.

The two situations are perched above the same psychological fault line: When confronted by a situation with a high likelihood of defeat or failure, most people try to push away the moment of defeat -- even when confronting the problem right away offers the best chance of victory.

James did the right thing in going for a three-pointer -- he bucked the psychological tendency -- but his coach made a mistake in benching him in the other game, said Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, who has had a longtime interest in the psychological phenomenon. Thaler calls the psychological tendency "sudden death aversion." In an unpublished paper, Thaler listed a series of examples. Two are virtually identical to the real-life case studies.

In the first case study, let's say the odds of scoring a two-point shot are 50 percent and the odds of scoring a three-point shot are 33 percent. Obviously, the two-point shot looks better -- except that it would send the game into overtime, where Cleveland's odds of winning are again 50 percent. When you combine the odds of scoring the two-pointer with the odds of winning in overtime, the odds of winning the overall game with the two-point shot are only 25 percent, which is why going for the three-pointer is the better decision.

But, in the other example, James's coach was faced with a different kind of worst-case scenario: When his star got into foul trouble, the coach started to worry about not having James on the court at the end of the game. Like countless other coaches in the same situation, Brown benched James to head off this possibility -- the longer he kept him off the court, the more likely it was that James would survive through the end of the game.

With James back on the court, Cleveland, in fact, won the second half of the basketball game by a score of 59-45. But, without James's help early in the game, they lost the first half by an even larger margin, 58-33 -- and therefore lost the game.

In his working paper, Thaler argued that the strategy of benching players who get in early foul trouble is irrational because removing a star player from the game guarantees he will not play the whole game. Leaving the player in might well mean that a star such as James fouls out by halftime -- which would probably mean a lost game -- but it at least allows for the possibility that James will keep out of further foul trouble and play through the game. James ended the game with only three fouls; a player fouls out of the game with his sixth. But by then, Brown no longer had the option of having James play the large chunk of the first quarter that he had missed.

James was second-guessed for passing instead of shooting in the first case study, and Brown was second-guessed for benching James. In both cases, commentators focused on the outcomes of the games -- Cleveland lost both. But underlying that common outcome were opposin g decisions, and Thaler argues that the only way to fight the psychological bias is to focus not on whether you win or lose but on whether the decision was right or wrong. Going for the three-pointer in the first scenario will lose you the game two times out of three -- the shot has only a 33 percent chance of scoring -- and those sound like terrible odds, until you remember the alternative is to be defeated three times out of four.

Psychologists once tested the first scenario in an experiment. As expected, large numbers of people elected to go for the safer, two-point shot. But when questioned afterward, said Jane Risen, a social psychologist who is going to be joining the faculty of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business in the fall, people said they preferred to level the game because they thought the odds their team would win in overtime were better than 50-50. By equalizing at the last minute, this argument goes, you leave your opponent demoralized. But Risen's cleverly designed experiment showed that despite what people said, it was the pressure of looming defeat that was really behind the decision.

"What it highlights," Risen said, "is the fear of the negative outcome and how large it looms and how we try to avoid it."

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