Fear of sudden death

Why NFL teams, and people in all walks of life, myself included, prefer to "lose slowly"

January 17, 2016
Jonathan Libov

Rarely do I dispense life advice or general wisdom on this blog, and of all things NFL football is probably the last thing anyone should be deriving wisdom from, but this weekend's playoff games offers a rarely crystalline and generalizable lesson about human foible.

With 2:12 left in the 4th quarter, the underdog Kansas City Chiefs scored a touchdown — worth six points — to come within 9 points of the favored New England Patriots. They had the opportunity to kick an extra point, which they were virtually certain to make, bringing them within 8 points — one scoring drive — of tying the game. They also had the opportunity to "go for two", which they only had a 50% chance of pulling off. The reward of going for two? They'd be within seven points, which means that on the next drive, if they scored a touchdown, they'd only need that virtually certain extra point kick to tie the game.

At face value this appears to be a now or later decision: Do you kick the extra point now and go for two on the next drive, or do you go for two now and kick the extra point on the next drive? Teams always choose the former, but you don't even need advanced analytics to tell you why the latter is the right choice. If you kick the extra point now, you'll know you're within one drive of having a 50% chance of tying the game (i.e., you actually manage to score another touchdown but still need the two point conversion). But if you go for two now and fail, you might be down nine points (two drives worth of points instead of one), but at least you know that information. With that information in hand, you know you need to employ a riskier strategy to win the game: more aggressive defense in the hopes of forcing a turnover, or even an onside kick.

The Chiefs made the inarguable, logical mistake of kicking the extra point: What economist Richard Thaler calls "sudden death aversion":

The preference to "lose slowly" played itself out again in the late game, in which the Packers scored a miraculous touchdown to come within one point of the Cardinals with no time left on the clock. They faced a choice: Go for the virtually certain (actually about 98%) extra point and take the game to overtime, where the stronger Cardinals team would have a better chance of winning the game, or go for two, and either win the game immediately or lose it immediately. Put otherwise: The Packers could either take a 50% odds on winning the game in regulation, or about 40% of winning it in overtime. The Packers chose the 40% odds.

In an exchange on Twitter, the much-wiser-than-I Dave Winer pointed out how generalizable this mistake actually is:

Often in life, and even more often in work, we are biased to defer difficult decisions, even when doing so diminishes our chances to succeed. This is why "optionality" is viewed as an asset, when in fact it's often a liability, a catalyst for paralysis. By deferring to lose slowly, you get to live another day, to keep working, but to what end?

Such is life, though, that I do expect to link back to this post one day, not as an explanation for why I made an all-or-nothing decision, but for why I punted (see what I did there?) on a decision in the name of (perceived) optionality. Much as I'll continue to watch fatally conservative, morally depraved NFL Football year after year, in spite of the fact that if it's instructive about anything, it's instructive about how not to live your life.