But we submit that there is something else at play. The fear of loss is a huge motivator, both in life and in sports. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are credited with recognizing this phenomenon, which they called “loss aversion.” Distilled to its essence: we often tend to prefer avoiding losses even at the expense of acquiring gains. For most of us, the pain of losing $1 is far more intense and powerful than the pleasure of winning $1.
In an oft-cited psychology experiment, subjects are offered two gambles with identical payoffs, but framed differently. In the first gamble, a coin is flipped and if it lands heads you get $100; if tails, you get nothing. In the second gamble you are given $100 first and then flip the coin; if the coin lands heads you owe nothing; if it’s tails, you pay back the $100. Subjects dislike the second experiment much more than the first even though the actual gains and losses are identical
What about football? On offense, athletes seek a gain. They’re looking to score, to augment a total, to change the numbers on the scoreboard. On defense, athletes are simply trying to prevent points, to preserve the score and keep it from changing. On defense, the strong motivating forces of loss aversion aren’t really being activated. Nothing is at risk of being taken away or reduced.
We suspect that if sports were structured differently, defense might be perceived differently. Imagine if every game started not at 0-0 but with a score of, say, 25-25, and teams could have points deducted from that total. It stands to reason that the principles of loss aversion might kick in and inspire better defense.
But until then, defense is no more important than offense. If you’re prognosticating the Super Bowl winner, there are certainly better metrics than simply siding with the better defensive team. It’s not defense that wins championships. In virtually every sport, you need either a stellar offense or a stellar defense. And having both is even better.
Tobias J. Moskowitz, University of Chicago financial economist is co-author along with L. Jon Wertheim of “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.”
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