Loving winning vs. hating losing

by on May 1, 2017 at 12:03 pm in Economics, Sports, The Arts, Uncategorized | Permalink

Loving winning and hating losing are two fairly distinct motivations.  For instance, a fairly joyless person may nonetheless be motivated by the humiliation of a loss, or a non-envious, non-spiteful type could receive great pleasure from being number one, while not minding if someone later climbs higher yet.

If you both love winning and hate losing that is especially useful in one-on-one, zero-sum competitions, such as chess and tennis, and also in most team sports and perhaps securities trading as well.  Such people are more motivated, and motivated from more sides of their being, and if one of the emotions flags a bit the other is there to step in and maintain the pace and focus.

In venture capital, I suspect that hatred of losing may be a disadvantage.  No matter how successful you may be, most of your individual investments will lose money and hatred of losing may make you too risk-averse.  It might be better to have the ability to simply forget your losses and put them behind you.

For academics, it is more important to love gains than to hate losses.  Provided they don’t embarrass you, your forgotten articles just aren’t that big a deal and everybody has them, including Nobel Laureates.  A single key piece can make your career, however.

Is hatred of loss also unnecessary for book authors and music stars?  Ideally, you would think they should take lots of chances, but the exact tracking of sales makes them more risk-averse and thus boosts the relative status of the loss haters.  If they release a clinker book or album, the intermediaries are less keen to promote them next time around.  To the extent intermediaries become more important, that boosts the loss-hating performers, because intermediaries themselves are somewhat loss-hating.

What is the correct mix of gain-loving and loss-hating for a Navy Seal?  For a journalist?  A lawyer, programmer, or engineer?

In a job interview, what question should you ask to discern if someone is a gain lover or a loss hater or both?  Or neither!

1 Kris May 1, 2017 at 12:18 pm

Whenever I put on my programmer’s hat, I hate to not complete a promised task at the desired quality by the deadline. I suppose that ought to be labeled as “hating losing”.

That leads to a natural way to categorize fields that are better suited for one type of motivation over another. Wherever a goal is neatly defined and one is running against a machine or a clock, “hating losing” may be the best motivator. And wherever one is competing with another human being, “loving winning” is probably better because risk-aversion may backfire on you.

2 BC May 2, 2017 at 12:30 am

Some people sell put options. If things work out, they make a fixed amount but, if things fail, the lose big. They are risk averse because there is no such thing as winning, just not losing. People that are short puts are short volatility (risk).

Others, like VCs and academics, buy call options. They can get a big payoff if they win but pay a small, fixed amount if they don’t. These people are risk seeking because they are long volatility.

Others receive equity. They care about both winning and losing and are neutral to volatility.

It’s unclear whether people are inherently gain lovers or loss haters. Perhaps, their compensation — short puts, long calls, or long equity — incents their behavior.

3 Anonymous May 1, 2017 at 12:25 pm

A good programmer really hates it when he has a bug. He may experience it as an exposed flaw in his reasoning, but it is much more than that. A bug can cost an organization a few man hours, or man weeks, or millions, or even lives.

So it is really good for programmers to hate failure, even if they are blind to costs, and see it as protecting their vanity. They should (and the best do) find and fix their bugs before anyone else does.

One time I had a morning shower realization. I had to go to work and say “you know those tapes we shipped to customers yesterday? We have to call them and tell them not to install, or they face significant data loss.” I really hated that failure, but it turned out being good for me because everyone understood how much I hated it. The customers who were called were happy too, which shows some pragmatism on their part.

4 Kris May 1, 2017 at 12:30 pm


What era did you program in?

5 Anonymous May 1, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Times of big change. 🙂 From 1981 to about 2005.

We first delivered on EPROMs and had to erase them with UV lights, if you can imagine.

6 Kris May 1, 2017 at 1:05 pm

We first delivered on EPROMs and had to erase them with UV lights, if you can imagine.

Not professionally, but I did have to program and deliver an EPROM in one of my undergraduate courses. That was the only time though. My professional life has all been about service delivery through the web.

7 dearieme May 1, 2017 at 4:21 pm

’81? Pah, Johnny-come-lately.

8 Aretino May 1, 2017 at 1:37 pm

This hatred of bugs has seemingly disappeared, as it is common to issue buggy beta releases, and let the users find the bugs for you. Only in a few limited areas of software is there still a strong hatred of bugs, such as software for the military, for aviation, and embedded within healthcare devices.

9 Bob May 1, 2017 at 5:44 pm

It depends on which part of a codebase you work on. Someone writing infrastructure still has to hate bugs over everything, because mistakes compound. It’s not uncommon to find that, even in places where you only want 99% user-facing reliability, that someone will have to write code that has 99.9999% reliability, because it’s exercised so often for user-facing actions that the visibility of any error just balloons. Also, consider chains of errors: If you need 5 pieces to work correctly to succeed in an action, and they all fail 1/10 times, the changes the action will work is under 60%.

Hatred of bugs also remains in the financial sector. When a second of downtime creates a ten thousand dollar loss, you have to hate losing.

10 Pete May 1, 2017 at 12:28 pm

A Navy SEAL, or anyone else where a loss can be death, is going to ideally be much more loss hating than someone that is just looking for a blockbuster among the can’t-go-lower-than-zero losers.

When I think of being loss averse as a musician, I imagine putting out something boring. When I think of loss averse as a journalist, I think of Rolling Stone-like violation of standards to try to put out sensational journalism. Are we taking adhering to standards and norms as a given? If not, maybe loss aversion for a musician is more akin to, “this is on the hairy-edge of stealing someone else’s work: should I produce it anyway?”

11 Patrick May 1, 2017 at 12:54 pm

I was watching a special on Navy Seals last month, and they brought up the number of Seals who die during training (Forgive me if I am messing up the capitalization). The Seal being interviewed said something to the effect of “if no one died, we wouldn’t be training hard enough”. I’d call that a tick in the box for “Gain loving”.

A civil engineer can be in a situation where a ‘loss’ can mean death (although not for him), but I don’t know if it changes when Losses are common enough that loss-hating can completely derail your ability to perform your job.

But never being a soldier myself, I can’t speak with any real authority.

12 WorkingDog May 1, 2017 at 3:21 pm

“I personally have come to believe the single trait that will get a man through BUD/S is the will to win. The desire to win is different from refusing to lose, or not quitting. A man can get through BUD/S by refusing to quit, if he can meet the performance standards, but he will not be a leader — a ‘go to’ guy in his SEAL platoon. BUD/S cultivates this will to win, but to one degree or another, top trainees bring it with them when they walk through the door of the Naval Special Warfare Center.”

“Only optimists survive BUD/s. Everything is a challenge, not a threat. Once you let in negativity, that’s when the suck starts. You’re there to win, not just survive. If you’re trying to win, you don’t think about quitting.”

The dichotomy, though, isn’t so much “loves to win” vs. “hates to lose” as it is satisfiers vs. maximizers. The former will, in a bleak moment, weight whether there’s something more appealing than being cold, wet, and tired. The latter will be just as miserable as everyone, but is thinking “I can’t want to leave my team,” “the pain will end,” “I know what my long-term result will be,” and “If it didn’t suck, I wouldn’t want to do it.”

13 y81 May 1, 2017 at 12:31 pm

It may depend on what kind of law you practice. For lawyers who manage commercial transactions (large loans, securities issuances, etc.), which is what I do, I think it is more important for a lawyer to hate losing. People hire lawyers to make sure that transactions are handled without glitches. Most transactions are relatively routine but very complicated and easy to mess up.

14 Picador May 1, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Lawyers are extremely risk averse across the board. I had this thought in response to the recent post here about advisors following their own advice: I think that in the case of lawyers, they do practice the same kind of risk aversion in their own lives that they advise their clients to practice.

This is probably the right advice for lawyers to give, as long as it’s understood that the lawyer’s job is to advise of risks, whereas the business guy’s job is to take those risks, weigh them against possible rewards, and decide whether or not to take the risk. Anyone who listens to his lawyer 100 percent of the time will never make any money. Lawyers understand this (I think).

15 byomtov May 1, 2017 at 3:13 pm

I agree.

Bankers hate losing also.

As a friend once said of them, “One oh s**t erases a ton of attaboys.”

For anyone, much depends on payoff structures. If you get a few big wins and a lot of small losses then you need to not hate losing so much. If it’s the other way, then you do.

Gamblers – casino gamblers, by which I mean long-run losers – tend, in my experience, to love winning and barely dislike losing. That’s what keeps them coming back.

16 Anonymous May 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm

Kris’s “at the desired quality” is a phrase that holds a lot of meaning. Organizations may make right or wrong tradeoffs about “losing” as well.

Generally time to market is considered more important than being bug free (a surprise to old programmers striving for ‘correctness’), but of course too many bugs ..

17 Rock Lobster May 1, 2017 at 12:37 pm

In investing, I seem to care more about beating the market than I do about making money. Like, if I made 8% in a 5% upyear, I’d probably be happier than if I made 10% in a 15% upyear. In a sense that kind of means I hate losing more than I like winning.

18 Hadur May 1, 2017 at 12:37 pm

In one of my hobbies (a team sport), it is said that the greatest players are always motivated by a hatred of losing rather than a love of winning. This is what separates those who are content with merely being acknowledged as one of the best from those who actually take the extra steps needed to go from recognized elite status to champion.

Some sports are good at recognizing those who played well but did not win a championship. In baseball, for example, there is no real stigma from being a great player who never won a championship. Everyone loves Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, etc. In the NBA and NFL, there seems to be more of a stigma against guys who were never able to win a ring, that is held against them in conversations about who is the greatest of all time. I suspect loss-aversion is more valuable for an NBA player than for an MLB player.

19 Eric Rasmusen May 1, 2017 at 12:56 pm

That may be right, but not all endeavors are like that.

20 alexp May 1, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Only quarterbacks, though. Nobody holds it against Walter Jones or Bruce Smith for never winning a championship.

I think it’s really about how much a player can affect the game. The best pitcher can only realistically pitch every 5 days, maybe compress it to 4 days in a playoff series. The best batter, by rule, is only at bat 1 in 9 times.

A quarterback directly controls the ball on more than half his team’s offensive snaps, and has a strong influence on the rest. A star basketball player can basically choose his usage rate.

21 msgkings May 1, 2017 at 2:08 pm

This ^

22 jc May 1, 2017 at 12:38 pm


Like this one, tested on professors (e.g., at Stanford) who also, apparently, hate losing more than they like winning? Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica: Journal of the econometric society, 263-291.

Or is winning and *gaining* not the same thing? And is losing something (e.g., an object or somebody else’s life) different than losing to another human being in a competitive situation?

And is this Savannah Effect stuff, visceral mandates that were useful during formative and/or subsequent static eras, but not always as adapted to modern and/or future eras, in this day and age of environmental dynamism? After all, false negatives – e.g., is there a lion in those bushes that’s about to eat me – may have had more serious consequences then…so fine, the bias towards risk-aversion seems sensible…but today (and tomorrow)?

23 jc May 1, 2017 at 12:39 pm

Re: Above. This should have shown up first: “For academics, it is more important to love gains than to hate losses. Provided they don’t embarrass you, your forgotten articles just aren’t that big a deal and everybody has them, including Nobel Laureates.”

24 prior_test2 May 1, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Well, how about columnists confronted with a daily deadline? Maybe they can gain that necessary synergy by treating commenters as a pool of more involved grad students to provide the necessary material.

25 Eric Rasmusen May 1, 2017 at 12:55 pm

A very important point you made:

For academics, it is more important to love gains than to hate losses. Provided they don’t embarrass you, your forgotten articles just aren’t that big a deal and everybody has them, including Nobel Laureates. A single key piece can make your career, however.

I remember Robert Fogel avuncularly telling me, “Only your home runs count.” (Eventually I’ll have one!)

I like the idea of asking job candidates this. It is SO important for assistant professor to understand— or rather, for them to have “affections” (in the technical sense) of this kind.

26 rayward May 1, 2017 at 1:08 pm

I’m not sure the love winning/hate losing dichotomy is accurate, at least not in the way Cowen presents it. Those who love winning may be overly self-confident, so the possibility of losing isn’t even considered; or they may be overly dimwitted, unaware of the risks of losing. Those who hate losing may be overly pessimistic, so fear of losing is an ever-present possibility; or they may be overly intelligent, keenly aware of the risks of losing. In venture capital, past success often determines future success. No, I don’t mean that the venture capitalist is especially good at evaluating investments, but rather his act of choosing an investing generates interest among other potential investors, making it far easier to unload what the venture capitalist may conclude is a likely loser. Of course, the venture capitalist who loses his shirt isn’t much remembered, whereas the venture capitalist who hits the jackpot is long remembered and admired (even though his fate was determined more by luck than skill). Sure, the “successful” venture capitalist may think he is a genius and write books and give speeches to share his genius, even though he isn’t. I don’t doubt that Cowen knows a few of those “winners/geniuses”.

27 Brian Bergfeld May 1, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Ask about the electives they took in college.

28 Jesse May 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm

For engineering (aside from consumer software) loss aversion should be dominate. For consumer software win seeking should dominate. Think of it from the potential gains and losses. In most engineering the upside potential is bounded (efficiency etc can only improve a certain amoumt) but the downside is unlimited ( see Bhopal, flixborough etc.), so while the design improvements are important for long term success, all possible improvements can be wiped out by one catastrophic loss. For consumer software the opposite is generally the case. Losses are bounded at the investment put in, and the upside is enourmous.

29 Axa May 1, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Doctors, hundreds of patients get well, 1dies…..no one remembers the hundreds in a malpractice suit.

30 VJV May 1, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Journalism’s a tough one. On the one hand, it’s similar to academia, in that a great piece can make your career, but nobody really remembers your mediocre work. On the other hand, editors really value consistency and reliability, and when you need to churn out copy on a regular basis ensuring that it meets some standard of acceptability (even if it’s not great, and everything you write can’t be) is important.

If I were managing an organization (in any field) I’d want a mix of gain-lovers and loss-haters. Seems like both perspectives are useful.

31 The Other Jim May 1, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Engineering is 100% about preventing and solving problems – hating loss. Nobody cares about the “wins” because it just means you are now onto the next game.

Research, on the other hand, is 100% about loving wins. If you cure cancer, nobody cares about your 3000 failed attempts to do so.

32 thfmr May 1, 2017 at 1:46 pm

For blog commenting I would prefer loss-haters.

33 harpersnotes May 1, 2017 at 2:01 pm

Possibly a manic-depressive continuum? Not only are those with mania more confident and hopeful, but also pay more attention to their wins. Consider the dopamine enhancing drugs given to Parkinson’s Disease patients — they have to pay special attention to not be taken in by confidence games and various scams. Consider Paul Andrews’ research on depression as a kind of cognition enhancement — replaying and obsessing about past losses as possibly shaped by evolution into a behavioral adaptation to anticipate and prevent future similar losses, especially ones with severe reproductive-success consequences. Often the best personality is to have ‘no personality’, which is a joking way of saying that too the extent manic or depressive maps onto personality traits, then not too rigidly either manic nor depressive, but flexible as learning and circumstances happen. What immediately popped into my mind about careers on reading the blog here was professional poker players — either excess gets punished and there are lots of small reward-punishment trials occurring over short spans of time.

34 harpersnotes May 1, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Marketing vs. Accounting? It has sometimes been said there are two main tracks to become CEO in most large well-established companies, marketing or accounting/finance. In my mind marketing maps onto seeking rewards, and the latter on avoiding losses.

35 Sandia May 1, 2017 at 4:08 pm

The harder it is to define what winning is for a given activity the more likely it is you will have people who love winning and don’t mind losing involved.

36 Amigo May 1, 2017 at 8:07 pm

I’m reminded of Nacho Libre:


37 AL May 1, 2017 at 11:18 pm

Isn’t Ronald Coase an example of a highly successful loss-hating academic? (Of course, the papers he never wrote may have been even better than the ones he published.)

38 dux.ie May 2, 2017 at 1:59 am

Interestingly the latest data from OECD PISA with large sample size with a few hundred thousand students and scores of country data points to allow a framework for identifying the high performers. The students were asked to rate themselve as to 1) striving to be the best, 2) wanting to be selected (against some cutoff, thus is equiv to not wanting to lose), 3) motivated.

Interestingly there is significant trend and it is not very encouraging, the higher the percentage of population with with option 2, the worse their performance. This good enough mentality does not promote better performance.

Math = -4.62*WantSelectPct +907.18; n=57; Rsq=0.1113; p=0.0112

Unfortunately for those choosing option 1 the general trend is the same as above

Math = -1.44*WantBestPct +567.52; n=57; Rsq=0.2423; p=0.0001008

However, on closer inspection there is a ‘pitch fork bifurcation’, with noticeable gap between the bifurcation starting about the point of pop average, with the upper fork

Math = +2.13*WantBestPct +359.61; n=14; Rsq=0.3235; p=0.03379

There are pops that thrives with competition while others the resulting anxiety might have degraded their performance. Nevertheless striving to be the best mentality is still good since it is positively correlated with the rate of change,

MChange=+0.055*WantBestPct -2.90; n=53; Rsq=0.1642; p=0.002617

The best improver is Qatar which increased +9.2 PISA points.

The rate of change btw 2009 and 2012 is used as there is a change of scaling for the 2015 data.

39 John Saunders May 2, 2017 at 11:39 am

Psychologist E. Tory Higgins has studied people’s preferences for promotion (winning) versus prevention (loss avoidance): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_focus_theory

40 Ricky Tylor May 2, 2017 at 4:38 pm

We got to love things, it is not going to work at all if we hate stuff, so we need to just be positive and make sure we work with confidence and with positive intent. At least, I do that as a trader and it has worked nicely for me. I feel very pleased with OctaFX due to the outstanding set of features and facilities from LOWEST possible spreads at 0.1 pips, zero balance protection, swap free account and much more, it’s all absolutely rocking.

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