The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Playing It Safe

Playing it safe -- on and off the sports field.

There has been a lot of chatter recently about New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s decision to take a chance on a fourth down play — a decision that turned out badly.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to be interested in the larger phenomenon the issue raises. We say we like to win, but very often, we believe in playing it safe. Human beings are far more averse to losses than they are receptive to gains, which is why when asked to choose, they err on the side of caution. Belichick did the right thing, and the data shows that if he sticks to his approach, he will win more often than he will lose.  Read a column I wrote about this — coincidentally, it talks about a similar play where Belichick’s gamble paid off. The point of course is not whether any individual gamble pays off, but whether the gamble pays off on average in the long term.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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