Thursday, April 12, 2012

We're not overly pleased

Overly Optimistic Schmutz Cycloplane, 1904

Rabobank's spring has fairly stunk, and they're looking for a reason for hope on their home soil in the upcoming Ardenne Classics. Yesterday they found it in the moderate achievement of having two riders finishing in the top ten of Brabantse Pijl, a race considered a good measure of fitness going into Amstel Gold, the first of the Ardennes classics. Sounding like a man used to disappointment, Rabo DS, Frans Maassen, stated, "We're not overly pleased."

We race bikes partly because we're delusional. We have what Tali Sharot calls "optimism bias."

I here relate kind of a complicated study, which you can skip if you're an Eeyore, and already know that, as a species, we're way too optimistic.

Sharot asked study participants to guess how likely it was that any of 80 bad things will happen to them in the coming year. Researchers might ask:
What are the odds of you getting cancer?
What are the odds of you being struck by a vehicle?
What are the odds of you being forced to watch the entire season of David Tutera's (My Fair Wedding? My Fair Wedding is a show in which David, satan-like, allows brides to achieve their dream weddings--visions which usually shame the human race) .

Participants then provided estimates of the likelihood of these horrible things happening (i.e., "well, maybe 1 in 100," or something like that).

Researchers didn't really care about whether people were accurate in perceiving danger. They wanted to know how people reacted to corrections to their estimates of danger.

Researchers found that we react completely like idiots to correction, just like five-year olds. Our reactions are asymmetrical. That is, when told good news (e.g., you overestimated your odds of getting cancer) we agree, and breathe a sigh of relief. Good news! I won't get cancer!

But when told bad news (e.g., you actually underestimated the odds of being struck by a meteor) most of us don't adjust our statistics accordingly. We don't recognize the danger in the same way we recognize the absence of danger.

This is called optimism bias, and as a species we are almost universally afflicted with it. Well, actually about 80% of us are; the 20% who accurately see the world are usually clinically depression or anxious. Kind of a double edged sword.

Very NSFW Louis CK

In other words, we call it a mental illness to look at the world with a sober eye.

The last people to get rich in the market did so by exploiting optimism bias--the kind that said, as everyone did of the housing market, that housing prices will continue to rise forever. Smart investors saw that optimism for what it was--delusional--and bet on the failure of the American housing market.

Despite making several billion on credit default swaps, being the guy who points out everyone's excessive optimism is a drag. You're the Debby Downer, even if you are rich. Said one investor, "I don't go out looking for good shorts. I'm spending my time looking for good longs. I shorted mortgages because I had to. Every bit of logic I had led me to this trade and I had to do it."

Two things:

(1) You and I are probably way too optimistic, but that's OK. If we were realistic, we'd be on Prozac.

(2) Everyone is way too optimistic, and it's smart to recognize this.

This second truth is what I want to get at. Most of us think we're capable of more than we can do on the bike. We also probably are not sober enough about the dangers of racing and riding a bike.

That's why when an accident does happen, it comes as such a shock, despite the near-inevitability of it: everyone crashes, everyone breaks bones, everyone loses skin. But it happened to me! Yes, and it will happen again if you keep racing.

There's something about riding a bike that causes that fear of accident to evaporate, despite the very real likelihood of physical harm. It's just irrational, and no matter how much you remind yourself, you lose it, so that when the crash does happen, and you lie there wondering how much Tegaderm you will need to buy, and how you will manage to sleep without lying on your back, side or stomach--it comes as such a shock.

That's why these words should be the motto of all bike racers: "I'm not overly pleased." We live in a fragile state of health and fitness, and if we are in it for the long haul, we'd best preserve our caution.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for making me sad.

Calvini said...

Morning cup of sorrow...served piping lukewarm. May you invest wisely and ride safely now.