Sports are in your Brain

Scorecasting covers a number of topics, but the majority of the book is about how sports performance, including that of referees and coaches, is dominated by the fact that sports are played by people and people have biases.  One that comes up throughout the book is loss aversion, or the idea that people feel worse about losing X than they would feel good about gaining X; or, as they quote Sparky Anderson saying, “losing hurts twice as bad as winning feels good”. 

In a couple of places, the authors note that the brain is sensitive to this effect.  The first time the idea comes up there’s a footnote that starts “Research even shows that the brain processes losses differently from gains”, and in a later section the authors mention research that shows that people with damage to certain brain regions have reduced loss aversion.  This first note in particular has the feel of “Look!  if you don’t believe us, it’s in your brain!”  Hopefully your response was of course it is.

There are essentially two ways this argument can play out.  Some people may take some manner of dualist view, thinking that some portion of themselves (the soul or the mind, perhaps) lies outside of the body.  If this is the case, then you should just gloss over any time you see a fMRI or other brain-related study, because whatever they find can’t explain the whole story.  Part of the mind, after all, is located somewhere else.  The other side is to believe that the body is what we are, in which case it makes perfect sense that some portion of the brain responds the same way our behavior does.  Outside of some very simple reflexes controlled by the spine, the brain handles everything we do.  So saying that loss aversion exists in the brain is a non-starter; it has to.  Where else would it exist?

Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t seem to share these viewpoints.  Researchers can get funding for all sorts of things if they say they’ll study the brain, and news outlets often pick up the articles and run with them.  For example, just a few years ago (sadly recent even though fMRI is a young technology) there was a report on how chocoholics (people who say they’re addicted to chocolate) actually show different brain responses to chocolate than people who don’t claim to be chocoholics.  Why is this interesting?  Did we think that people were lying about really liking chocolate?  A better question might be if chocolate activates different parts of the brain than money, or cheesecake, or so on.  Asking if chocolate is special or unique is one thing; asking if people who like things “actually” like them is pretty silly.

Fortunately, the research mentioned in Scorecasting was after something more subtle than ‘does your brain respond to losses?’.  The Tom et al study (mentioned in the initial footnote) aimed at decision making per se as opposed to the experience of losses or gains and found that, despite what you might think, loss aversion appears not to be driven by a larger emotional response to losses.  Instead the brain regions that respond to losses also respond to gains; there are brain regions that reflect your subjective value of a choice, whether it is good or bad.  The study of brain-lesioned patients was demonstrating that sometimes brain damage can lead to positive outcomes, which is highly unusual.  Being loss averse, most people will pass on a risky decision if they happened to lose money on a similar decision, or just because it’s risky, even if taking the gamble is the right choice.  For example, we could flip a coin.  If it comes up heads, you win $3.  If it comes up tails, you lose $1.  Objectively speaking, you should take this bet as much as possible, since in the long run you’ll win $1 per flip.  But given the option to pass, people will pass after the coin comes up tails… unless they have brain damage to certain areas.  Apparently released from impact of a bad outcome, the patients made better decisions.  On the other hand, in other less advantageous situations the patients will make worse decisions because they don’t ‘feel’ a loss properly.

I’m going to stop rambling now, but it’s so rare for a sports outlet to mention brain research that I wanted to say something about it.  I’m happy for that kind of research to get more exposure, but would prefer that it be for the right reasons.  Hopefully the next time you see an article about something involving the brain it’ll be for a better reason than “oooo, look, the brain!”.  If you’d like a little more warning on superficial coverage of fMRI, I’d point you to a post by a friend of mine.


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