Carolina Loss Aversion

As a fan, I readily admit to unreasonable expectations.  I’m not remotely objective.  I create wildly optimistic scenarios and pretend they are objective and realistic.  It’s what fans do and it’s entirely human, if not quite “normal.”

We all live in an overconfident, Lake Wobegon world (“where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”).  We are only correct about 80% of the time when we are “99% sure.” Despite the experiences of anyone who has gone to college (even at Duke), fully 94% of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills. Since 80% of drivers  say that their driving skills are above average, I guess none of them are on the freeway when I am.  While 70% of high school students claim to have above-average leadership skills, only 2% say they are below average, no doubt taught by above average math teachers.  In a finding that pretty well sums things up, 85-90% of people think that the future will be more pleasant and less painful for them than for the average person.

Our overconfident tendencies are well-known of course and obvious in others if not to ourselves (there’s that bias blind spot thing again).  The odds of playing college sports are long and the chances of an athlete reaching the pros are vanishingly small, yet every week-end astounding numbers of parents can be heard at their kids’ games talking about little Sally or Sam inevitably winning an athletic scholarship.

This tendency to be overly confident (especially in males – duh), when coupled with the confirmation bias I wrote about in this space recently, can make for crazy expectations among fans. Coaches – especially those on the proverbial hot seat – are well aware of the problems created by unrealistic expectations.

Most coaches other than Rex Ryan try it, but Dean Smith was a particular master at managing expectations.  He was also exceedingly polite (not that I recognized it at the time).  No matter how dreadful the opponent, Dean would wax eloquent about how well coached the team was and how the game was going to be terribly difficult, perhaps impossible for Carolina.  You’d almost think Carolina should have been the underdog against Appalachian State and Wofford.

On the other hand, we are also highly loss averse.  Empirical estimates find that losses are felt between two and two-and-a-half times as strongly as gains.  Thus I hurt at least twice as much when UNC-CH beats Duke as I feel good when the Blue Devils win.  People who live and work in the Triangle area know how tough it is to show one’s face around town after such a tough loss.  Opposition fans (see below) seem to be everywhere and can be exceedingly cruel.  Indeed, they relish the opportunity to do it at every opportunity (not that I’d ever do anything like that).

But this dynamic only seems to apply when we think the rivalry is a closely contested one.  Notice our own Shane Ryan’s comments on the ACC-Big Whatever Challenge: “for years and years I didn’t care which conference came out on top…. In recent years, though, I’ve found myself being sucked into the larger competition. In fact, my interest has coincided with the Big Ten’s ascension.”

My wife is a Wake Forest alumna (as is our daughter). She remembers losses to Carolina (in those days, potentially four a season with the Big Four, two regular season meetings and the ACC Tournament) as expected and thus not too big of a deal.  A win, however, meant unbridled joy (see below).  Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Maybe it’s merely managing expectations.  But if a rivalry isn’t really a rivalry, it doesn’t mean or matter as much [insert Matt Dougherty joke here].

Winning a rivalry game is fabulous (such as the 7-0 “air ball” game when I was a student in 1979).  But losing one elicits a much stronger reaction.  So I’ll be glued to the television, as usual, when Duke plays Carolina next.  I’ll be hoping and cheering for a Duke win.  But I’ll really be dreading a Duke loss.

Bob Seawright

About Bob Seawright

Bob Seawright first sat in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a student in 1978. He didn't miss a home hoop game while enrolled at Duke. His blog Above the Market is here.
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2 Responses to Carolina Loss Aversion

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  1. CarMichael says:

    A while back, a thread on IC asked how people would feel about UNC and Duke meeting in a national championship game. Most people said the very idea gave them the willies because a loss would be so terrible. A few people said “Bring it on!” I suspect these are the sort of people who think ritual bragging before a contest helps their side’s chances.

  2. sanfransoxfan
    sanfransoxfan says:

    The game would never be over. There would be half a dozen bad calls (as there always are) that would have “decided” the game (unless it was a very unlikely blowout). Remember Apollo Creed’s “no rematch, no rematch”?? That would be me if my team won. I will trade a “not gonna happen” for a W in a heartbeat – some games should just not be played. How do I know this? ’91 UNC loses its semi-final to Kansas immediately before the Duke/UNLV game. The reaction of every Duke fan I was with (and possibly some Duke players)? “We’re playing with house money, baby, we only have to beat undefeated UNLV, and we DON’T have to face UNC!”

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