Like many folks, I watched Serena Williams play in the second round of the U. S. Open Tennis Tournament against Anett Kontaveit, ranked No. 2 in the world. Serena Williams won.

In her interview with a reporter right after winning, Ms. Williams noted that while she is super competitive, she approached this match with an attitude of “having nothing to lose (or to prove) and everything to gain”.  She noted that for the last two decades,  she has had a “target” on her back, but it is not there anymore as she has proven herself- 23 Grand Slam titles (the most of any active player and second only to Margaret Court) and ranked No. 1 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association “… for 319 weeks including a joint-record 186 weeks consecutive weeks, and finished as the year-end No. 1 five times.” (Google)

Her comment of having nothing to  prove (or nothing to lose) and everything to gain, reminded me of the cognitive bias of risk aversion. Risk Aversion or Prospect Theory was first developed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1973.  Pursuant to this cognitive bias, people will work harder to avoid a loss than to obtain a gain. Thus, they are more likely to take a risk to avoid and/or minimize a loss. At the same time, if a person has nothing to lose, he/she will take the risk. Thus, when the stakes are high, a person will be more risk averse- take action to avoid a possible loss; yet when the stakes are low- a person will be risk seeking or take risky actions when she/he has nothing to lose.  (Prospect Theory).

At this stage in her career, Ms. Williams has little to prove (or to lose). The stakes are very low!  She has proven herself and then some. Indeed, anyone watching the match sensed that the more than 23,000 folks in the stands were very much in favor of Ms. Williams. It was Ms. Kontaveit vs. Ms. Williams and the crowd in the stands! Ms. Williams’ only gain would be another Grand Slam title- her 24th which would tie Margaret Court who won 24 singles majors in 1970.  As this would be no small achievement, under prospect theory, Ms. Williams still has little to lose (and nothing to prove) and much to gain by taking the “risk” and playing in the U. S. Open at age 40!

So, while we may think of these cognitive biases in mundane terms- how a lawsuit or any dispute may play out and thus wonder whether it is worthwhile to settle, they also apply to the more interesting aspects of our lives- including sports.

… Just something to think about.


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