Study: It’s smarter to go for the win, but coaches opt for ties more often — To avoid scrutiny

ITHACA, N. Y. — Many die-hard NFL fans have fantasized about this moment: Your football team, down by seven, drives the length of the field, scores a touchdown, and has a chance to win with a two-point conversion or tie the game with an extra point. The coaches call the final timeout to discuss the options. On the one hand, the odds of gaining the two yards to convert the two points and win the game are actually fairly high, but if they fail, they lose. Conversely, if they simply kick the extra point, a near certainty, they tie their opponent and head to overtime.

If you were the coach, what would you do?

Football player scoring a touchdown
When faced with the decision between going for the tie and sending a game into overtime, or going for the win in the final seconds, most coaches opt for the tie. Avoiding scrutiny is a major reason why.

After reviewing outcomes of NFL and NBA games in which teams had to make final-second nail-biting decisions, researchers at Cornell University discovered that most pro-level coaches would kick the extra point and take their chances in overtime, even though the best chance to win the game outright is often via a two-point conversion. The reasons for this common tactical mistake are largely outside the field of play.

The study’s authors call the unwillingness to try to win the game at the risk of losing it “sudden-death aversion” (SDA). By extending the game, coaches avoid losing it all on the spot and having to face fans, analysts, reporters, and general managers after the game.

Of course, this theory extends to many sports, not just football. It’s also a common conundrum, for example, for basketball coaches with a team in possession of the ball and down by two in the final seconds. In baseball, managers must decide whether or not to go for the tie with one out in the ninth, runners on second and third, and their best hitter up at the plate — or have him swing away instead of opting for the sacrifice fly.

The authors argue that the sudden-death aversion phenomenon reflects a common human bias, not necessarily limited to sports, that often leads to non-logical and non-optimal decision-making. People, when faced with a choice between a “fast” option — which offers a greater chance of victory or success, but also a significant chance of instant failure or defeat — and a “slow” option with a lesser chance of both victory and immediate defeat, often choose the latter because of SDA.

“SDA occurs because people narrowly focus on the possibility of immediate defeat and believe immediate defeat is especially likely when other ‘safer’ strategies are available,” they write. “We suggest that … an aversion to sudden death can lead you to feel that a strategy with better odds is riskier, and thus give rise to suboptimal decision-making across a host of important contexts.”

The full study was published in the American Psychological Association.