Reframing Losses

How to avoid letting narrow defeat mess with your head.

Reframing LossesPhoto: iStock

Earlier this year, in the final few seconds of the game, a football coach made a decision that cost his team the Super Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll changed a play that left his star running back-the best in the league-without a shot at the ball, and his team without the win.

They watched as quarterback Tom Brady leaped for joy when his New England Patriots took the game with a slight edge, the final score 28-24. “I hate that we have to live with that,” Carroll said after the match, “because we did everything right to win the football game.” It was a decision he’d question long into the off-season.

Whether it’s failing to land a lucrative contract, being narrowly outbid on the house of your dreams or losing a hard-fought game of Scrabble, life is full of near misses. Two University of Pennsylvania professors studying the issue in the 1980s coined the term “outcome bias.” Loosely defined, it refers to those times after a success or a failure when we put too much stock in the action we took, even if we fell victim to bad luck. For example, if you flip a coin, call tails and it lands heads, you might scold yourself-even though either decision was perfectly reasonable. The truth is, good strategies don’t lead to success 100 per cent of the time.

Think strategy, not results
What’s more, bad outcomes can beget bad decisions-and more bad outcomes. Last year, a group of scientists from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, published a study on NBA head coaches, whose job security depends almost entirely on team performance. In such a highly scrutinized environment, a knee-jerk reaction to a tough loss, or complacency after a big win, can be both hard to avoid and detrimental to future success.

The researchers showed that NBA coaches reacted to narrow defeats by making changes to their starting lineups, even though the losses were generally a matter of chance, not strategy or team play. “We judge ourselves or others harshly based on the outcome, when it was impossible to know when we were making the decision,” says Lars Lefgren, one of the study’s authors.

Unfortunately, we’re all susceptible to outcome bias. No one thinks as analytically with the adrenalin of a victory or disappointment from a loss running through their veins, particularly if the answer to the question “What could I have done differently?” is “Not much.” In these cases, Lefgren says, your gut instinct will be to beat yourself up or find a short-term solution. Ignore it-don’t forsake a strong strategy because of a single outcome.

Examine all angles
Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, says it’s natural for people to only pay attention to information that’s consistent with their beliefs. For example, if you’re someone who feels responsible for the consequences of your decisions regardless of outside elements, you might be ignoring other relevant causes. Try not to dismiss them. “Force yourself to look at all of the different factors responsible,” Antony says. He recommends asking yourself questions that will challenge your beliefs, such as: “If I were to share my interpretation with a close friend, would they agree with me?” or “Will this still be important to me tomorrow? Next week? Next year?” Talking to a friend who’s not invested in the situation or working through the angles in writing can also be useful.

Even if you do find yourself to blame after taking stock of a situation, move on and adjust your expectations. “It’s not the end of the world,” Antony says. “Part of learning to become an expert at something is making mistakes. You’d never learn to play the piano unless you got the notes wrong a whole bunch of times.”

Let emotions settle
When things don’t go well, we may react emotionally and quickly take steps to rectify the situation. Instead, Lefgren suggests waiting it out until you have a better idea of what went awry and aren’t planning next steps based on anger or disappointment that you’ll regret. “If you have the luxury, don’t make a decision immediately,” says Lefgren. “Count on the fact that, over time, luck averages out.”