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Assessing the risk assessment in the loss column

What do baseball standings tell us about how humans assess risk?

I can’t tell you how often people ask me that question.

Here, therefore, we go. We’re in the stretch run of the baseball season, a time that inspires sportswriters to make comments like this one in Wednesday’s column by Buster Olney: “The Braves are 1.5 games ahead of the Padres in the wild-card race now, one game in the loss column.”

Olney could also have said that the Braves were two games up in the win column, but he wouldn’t do that. Baseball writers always treat the loss column as the more important indicator of the two. This year, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned the loss column as early as September 7. He wrote, “For the moment, the Padres are a game up on the Giants (two in the loss column), and this weekend’s four-game series in San Diego really will mean something.”

Are losses really more important than wins—so much so that we concentrate on the loss column weeks away from the end of the season?

First, let’s get the basics down for people who didn’t grow up digesting box scores with their ziti. In baseball, the first-place team in a division is normally listed as zero games behind, represented by a dash, and every other team is some number of games behind. Each difference of one win or loss equals one unit of half a game. That makes sense when you think of two teams playing one game. Let’s say, to make the example as cheerful as possible, that the Giants beat the Dodgers in the first game of a season, resulting in these standings:

GB is games behind. A one-game difference in wins plus a one-game difference in losses, at half a game each, add up to the Dodgers being one game behind.

Near the end of the season, you might see something more like this: Because the Dodgers have played fewer games (due to gloomy southern California weather), they are only two back in the loss column, as opposed to 5 in wins or 3.5 overall. You’ll hear this deficit routinely characterized as being better for the Dodgers than having the deficit come from wins.

To explain why fans regard losses as more important than wins, I turn to a commenter on a blog I learned about five minutes ago. Asked why people place special emphasis on the loss column, StatmanCrothers writes on, “it has to do with controlling your own destiny. [I]f you suppose a scenario in which you ‘win out’ all your remaining games, the loss column is all that matters.”

Like all other pseudonymous commenters on little-known blogs, StatmanCrothers is exactly right. Competitors and their fans like the idea of being able to win titles without help from their rivals. But any logic that gets you to conclude that “the loss column is all that matters” is evident hooey. Of course it matters that one team has more wins than another.

The loss column emphasis does, however, contain bits of statistical and psychological truth.
The statistical truth is this. The better the teams are, the more the loss column matters. If the Giants were 154-1 and the Dodgers 152-3, the loss column would matter a great deal, as the Giants aren’t likely to give up that two-game lead in the loss column unless the two teams play each other. In realistic baseball standings, where the competing teams might win 55% or 60% of their games, the loss column is indeed more important than the win column, but only mildly so.

On the other hand, imagine two bad teams battling for a prize. For example, in the English Premiere League (the top division of English football—the kind of football you play with your feet), teams struggle to avoid relegation to a lower, less lucrative division. For two losing teams competing in baseball-style standings, the win column would be more important. Like Cheetos, wins and losses each gain value when they are scarce.

The psychological truth of the loss column fetish is more complicated and ultimately more interesting. That truth relates to the common notion that teams ahead in the loss column “control their own destiny,” in the phrase of StatmanCrothers and innumerable others. Again, a team that controls its own destiny is one that will win a title or playoff spot by winning all of its own remaining games, regardless of its rivals’ results.

In most situations, we humans love control.

We love it even when statistics tell us we shouldn’t. People are more likely to fear flying than driving, even though flying is safer. We control our cars, we feel, but we know there’s nothing we can do if our plane decides to star in a real-life “Lost.”

Security expert Bruce Schneier writes about this and other phenomena of behavioral psychology in discussing how people assess risk. In “Beyond Fear,” he finds five “pathologies” that distort our perceptions of risk:

People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.

Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.

People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.

Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.
Note the fourth of these. People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.

When our team is ahead in the loss column, “in control of its own destiny,” we feel better because the risks lie in the failure of the players’ actions, not in the games of other teams—those “situations they can’t control.”

Schneier finds in these misperceptions the roots of serious problems, particularly the misallocation of the resources the government devotes to keeping us safe. You can see more of his analysis in his online essay “The Psychology of Security.”

But this is the sports page, and I’ll simply opine that we value the loss column as a sign of our team’s being in control, and that perception helps us deal with the risks involved in competition.
So take your loss column standings if you like. Enjoy the illusion of control. As a lifelong fan of the San Francisco Giants and Buffalo Bills, I will wait for my teams to devise a new formula for heartbreak.

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  • L

    LogicSep 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Sounds Ethan has trouble with “People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.”
    How can you say the downside potential of a loss is greater than the upside potential of a win? Last I checked they are equally weighted on opposite sides of the equation. Yes a loss FEELS worse…The only reason a win can have greater upside potential than the downside of a loss is when it is relative to another team – which you choose to ignore.
    You can’t ignore the relative measure of wins/losses to other teams. It only matters relative to other teams.

  • E

    EthanAug 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    The only possible way a team can improve it’s record objectively and of itself (as opposed to in relation to another team or teams) is to increase the win column number, since it is obviously impossible to decrease the loss column number. Therefore, the loss column can only get worse, never better, and therefore its downside potential is greater than the upside potential of the win column, which is favorably alterable.