The Science of Losing

Harness the power of the small loss while still competing to win.

Tied 7–7, it was a critical moment in the match. With time was running out, the next goal would win. I had the ball. I was dribbling down the sideline with a clear shot on goal when…I inexplicably fell down.

My opponents took the ball, giggling at my misfortune. They dribbled back down the field and scored easily. Things went from bad to worse when they started gyrating in celebration.

It was then that I wondered, “Should I have let my kids win?”

Pros and cons

This is a question a lot of parents go back and forth on, and there are credible talking points on both sides. What’s more, it’s obviously important to kids that they win. Even without it being emphasized to them, they like winning and want to keep score. It’s not exactly survival of the fittest, but there is clearly some evolutionary value to competing successfully.

As for why to let kids win, doing so seems to help them gain confidence, be more likely to practice and play again, and experience real joy in their accomplishment. Then there’s the not inconsequential side benefit of — particularly if you’re out in public — avoiding the potential meltdown brought on by losing.

Yet losing also seems to have benefits. Kids learn perspective, may be inspired to improve, and develop valuable techniques for handling themselves in the face of adversity.

So what do? Let them win or let them lose? And what about more broadly? When is victory important and when does losing have value?

Answers and non-answers

In seeking answers to these questions, one challenge is navigating all of the narrative fluff humans have written rationalizing defeat. I get the concept of making it okay to lose, but where’s the science?

For example, this New York Times columnist says he’s “all for” losing. That’s because — ignoring problems with sample size and selection bias — he credits losing for preparing his son for “the slog that is life” and paradoxically turning him into a winner. Google “quotes about winning” and you’ll be treated to a smorgasboard of platitudes about how winning is a result of losing — the culmination of many struggles and defeats that made the speaker stronger (though it’s difficult to take someone like Michael Jordan seriously on the topic of shortcomings on the basketball court…even when he lost he knew he was the best player on the floor).

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
— Michael Jordan

There’s also a popular view today that society is too obsessed with winning. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz says “we’ve defined winning in a way that promises far more that it can deliver” and that trying to win “demands a kind of single-minded focus that can create a narrow and limited life.”

But is that true? It certainly sounds all well and good, and it’s a nice story to be able to tell to the billions of people who lose something— a game, a job, a race, an ambition — daily, let alone frustrated children. However, there is a problem with these apologias for losing, and it’s that they ignore a body of research that suggests that winning is, in fact, awesome.

Winners win

For example, medical research has found that winners of sports competitions experience an increase in testosterone and a more positive mood. What’s more, that increase in testosterone repeats before their next competition, enabling them to perform better, win again, and go on to achieve higher levels of health, fitness, and happiness.

Other recent research into bullies refutes the popular narrative that they peak in high school and go on to unfulfilling existences. In fact, it seems that bullies are more likely than their victims to grow up happy and end up well-adjusted later in life. And rather than their behavior be compensating for something, it turns out that they have “more dates and sex when they grow up.” This is attributable to the markedly higher status and self-esteem they gain by being dominant relative to their peers.

Losers lose

As for losing, while we can say that it builds character, it takes a physical and mental toll. For example, as National Public Radio reported a few years ago, fans of losing football teams see a sharp increase in saturated fat consumption the day after the game. These “comfort foods” are a coping mechanism and have been shown, for some chemical reason, to decrease levels of sadness. What’s more, giving up is a well-documented phenomenon in situations where a player or team is losing by a lot.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve suffered through this. Just within the last few weeks I watched my favorite soccer team, Arsenal, be scored on at will by Bayern Munich at the end of two different Champions League legs. And my Georgetown Hoyas, bereft of confidence, allowed themselves to get blown out at the end of a college basketball game against highly-ranked Villanova in which they had otherwise been competitive.

Source: ESPN.com

This happens because losing creates feelings of anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness that may not build as much character as we might like to believe. This helps explain why people try so hard and make so many bad decisions in order to avoid it. Loss aversion ranks high among the forces that cause us to be stupid. That fact is no more evident than in the world of poker, where researchers found that players take on more and more risk as they lose in more and more futile attempts to break even. As with so many other financial pursuits, it’s aversion to loss that condemns one to loss.

When losers win

And yet, there’s also evidence that a little bit of losing in a good thing. When this happens, losing is a force that sharpens the mind and the body. In professional golf, for example, players facing the same putt for birdie or for par are two to three percentage points less likely to make the birdie putt, which would give them a good score, than the par putt, which would salvage a respectable score. The research into this phenomenon explained it by saying “players invest more focus when putting for par to avoid encoding a loss.”

Similarly, professional basketball teams that are losing by a point at halftime win “6 percentage points more often than expected,” a measurable effect that’s about half the magnitude of the famous home-court advantage, according to researchers Jonah Berger and Devin Pope. Losing by a little bit is, in this case, a very strong motivating factor.

Another fascinating example of winning by losing comes from the corporate world when two companies compete against each other to acquire a third company. A trio of economists looked at the data in these situations and found that returns from the competing companies “are closely aligned in the years before the contest, but diverge afterwards” with the company that wins the acquisition underperforming the loser by 50% over the next three years. Part of this can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that 90% of deals fail to achieve pre-deal expectations, which can distract management or lead to write-offs and other wasted investments. But perhaps the losing company also walked away with a bit of a chip of its shoulder and set out to show the world that it didn’t need an acquisition to be successful after all.

And in the legal world there is an interesting finding that defeats in the courts actually hasten the progress of social reform. That’s because these defeats help galvanize support, mobilize reformers, and encourage interested parties to pursue more and more courses for reform.

In all of these cases, though, the key to losing seems to be to not far too fall behind.

There’s losing and then there’s losing

Falling too far behind is what finally undid former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie as he sought to help that franchise lose spectacularly on the way to building a long-term tradition for winning. Called “The Process,” Hinkie sought to turn a low value roster of overpaid and underperforming players into a high value organization of draft picks, potential, and salary cap space.

To do that Hinkie had to trade away decent players, draft injured players and players who would continue to play away from the NBA, and accept abject futility on the court. This led to three consecutive sub-20 win seasons and culminated in a 10-win 2015–16 season that ranked as the third worst performance in NBA history. It was near the end of that debacle in April 2016 that Hinkie resigned under the pressures of misunderstanding and replacement and penned a letter about The Process.

What was fascinating about this work is that Hinkie was quite literally testing the limits of human tolerance for losing. What’s more, he did so across multiple stakeholders: players, fans, investors, and management.

For a little while, the losing felt good. The 76ers and their fans were focused and energized. But because the losing persisted for too long and by too large a magnitude, Hinkie lost his stakeholders. That’s the difference between being a plucky underdog and a lost cause even if you believe (as I do) that Hinkie was walking down a pretty interesting path.

So win or lose?

As for the original question as to what to do with kids when it comes to winning and losing, I’ve — rightly or wrongly — adopted three approaches. I think these — or variants of these — approaches can be applied to other fields such as business or investing to harness the power of the small loss while still keeping a focus on competing to win.

First, I’ve stopped letting them win, so to speak, but I do play in a manner more commensurate with their experience in order to make the game more legitimately competitive. When we play King of Tokyo, for example, a dice game where players must weigh the benefits of attacking an opponent’s monster versus rejuvenating their own monster, I play more recklessly than tactically — sharing the same bias toward attacking as my lizard-brained four-year-old. Not only is this fun, but it gives the kids a chance to win without me making obvious concessions.

Second, now that we hold our games to more rigorous standards, I allow undos and redos. Rather than reward mistakes (as letting one win does), this approach awards recognizing and correcting mistakes.

Finally, it’s choosing at times to play cooperatively rather than competitively. This means my kids and I team up to compete against a faceless interlocutor, such as a clock, a previous standard, or the game itself. In basketball, we try to see how many baskets we can make in a minute. When we run, we form a relay team and see if we can beat our previous best time around the block. And with board games, it means opting for titles such as Pandemic or Forbidden Island where players work together.

There are a few goals with these approaches. The first is to acknowledge that while winning is good, it’s also true that people need to learn how to win, a skill that the science seems to support is helped along by a little bit of losing. Second, since no one can win at everything all the time, it’s critical for kids to experience some losing in order to figure out how to get the most out of it. Third, it’s to normalize the idea of losing as unpleasant, but acceptable. That may sound defeatist, but it’s because even though winning is awesome, one sobering thought from psychologist Ken Barish on this topic has stuck with me more than any other.

“If winning is everything” he notes, “children will cheat.” And nothing ultimately feels worse than that.