Surveys Uncovers Surprising Results

October 24, 2007  

Back in the 1980’s, executives used to joke that you would never get fired for buying “Big Blue” (IBM) computers. It’s not that IBM was the best, but you knew they would not screw up.

When I worked for Accenture (then Andersen Consulting), the Economist once called us “The McDonalds of the consulting industry. You know what you will get and it’s not fillet mignon.” People hired us not to get highly creative solutions, but rather to be assured of a successfully implemented solution.

There is a reason why consulting firms are so successful.

People choose safe, tried and true solutions over those which may be better yet have a risk of failure.

This is human nature. People take risks to minimize losses, yet play it safe when it comes to increasing gains.

But how much of a gain must be dangled in front of us before we will risk giving up the sure thing? I’ve been conducting a survey to find the answer.

Here’s the first question posed to respondents:

Which would you choose?

  • Option 1: A guaranteed gain of $75K or
  • Option 2: An 80% chance of getting $100K and a 20% chance of getting nothing

Our survey found that 75% of the people go for the sure thing, option 1. People play it safe when it comes to increasing gains. But how safe?

What if the upside is increased to an 80% chance of getting $150K? Now, 57% take option 2. Still, 43% play it safe, even though there is an 80% chance of doubling their money.

What if the upside is increased to $225K? 76% choose option 2. This means that, 1 in 4 people still play it safe even when the potential upside is 3 times the original amount. When we increase the upside to $450K – 6 times the original amount – we still have 20% of the people who go for the sure thing.

It appears that people believe the expression, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Interestingly, the original Old English expression was, “”Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.” That seems even more accurate.

Ok, let’s look at the loss side of things.

Here’s the first question posed to respondents:

Which would you choose?

  • Option 3: A guaranteed loss of $75K or
  • Option 4: An 80% chance of losing $100K and a 20% chance of losing nothing

This time, when presented with a loss rather than a gain, 71% go for the riskier option 4. People take risks to minimize their losses. [As an aside, when I ask audiences this question, the percentage of risk takers is closer to 90%]

Increase the potential loss to $125K and 44% still go for the riskier option 4. When the potential loss is increased to $250K, 22% of the respondents still opt for option 4.

If you plot these responses (risk-taking probabilities against expected gains), they make a nice “S” curve as depicted in the graphic left.

What does this graph tell us?

It clearly supports the premise that people take risks to minimize losses, yet play it safe when it comes to increasing their gains. The loss of $1,000 hurts more than a gain of $1,000 feels good.

This means that you can sell someone more easily when you focus on losses rather than the gains. This might explain why Al Gore has been so successful with his “Inconvenient Truth.” Instead of focusing on the benefits of a cleaner environment, he focused on the “meltdown” associated with the status quo. Can anyone say Nobel Prize?

The shape of the curve also gives us a bit more insight. First, the gain of $2,000 does not feel twice as good as the gain of $1,000. Equally, the loss of $2,000 does not hurt twice as much as the loss of $1,000. There is a point where we become numb to the increased gain or loss.

Another potentially useful take-away is what I call the “risk/reward tipping point.” This is the point where the “S” curve flattens out on both the loss and gain side. This occurs at the point when 80% of the people take the desired action. And based on my research, this ratio is a little under 3.

What does this mean?

The hoped for win (the upside) must be three times the guaranteed amount in order for most people to risk the sure thing.

There is a reason why the status quo wins out in business, politics, and life. Rarely are we given options where the benefit is three times the sure thing/current situation.

On a final note, there was some interesting research on this topic…but with a twist. Researchers at Duke University, in a paper entitled “Sleep Deprivation Elevates Expectations of Gains and Attenuates Response to Losses Following Risky Decision” (Venkatraman, Chuah, Huettel, Chee), wrote that this risk-taking profile changes when someone does not get enough sleep.

When kept awake for 24 hours, the study (supported by brain scans) showed a double whammy: people became more optimistic about potential gains and they were also numbed to the negative feelings associated with losses. They would act riskier and have less regret (distinct from disappointment) about bad decisions. Their decisions were often bad decisions. If you go to Las Vegas, be sure to get plenty of sleep!

Our ancestors lived in a world of scarcity. Therefore it is not surprising that we do everything in our power to horde what we have. Unfortunately, our desire to play it safe can cause us to miss out on big opportunities. Risk taking is fundamental to innovation. And innovation is critical to long-term success.

If you want to see some of this stuff action, be sure to read my entry on 10½ Ways to Improve Your Life – By Losing. This may give you some tools to enable you to take healthy risks to improve your life and business.

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