Editorial: Is the Safest Option Really the Best?

March
,
2018

Although we generally avoid sports clichés and idioms in CEP, this month’s editorial is inspired by a confluence of sporting events. Super Bowl LII recently marked the end of the football season, the National Basketball Association just held its All-Star game, Major League Baseball teams are starting spring training, and National Hockey League clubs are making a late-season push to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the college level, the NCAA Div. I Men’s Basketball Tournament, commonly known as March Madness, is right around the corner (and may be underway when you receive this issue). Many of us are staying up way too late to watch coverage of the Winter Olympics. It’s hard to prevent sports from creeping into the subconscious at this time of the year.

The headline of a recent press release intrigued me: “March Madness mentality: Faced with a chance to win, most coaches go for tie.” Imagine you’re the coach of a basketball team and you’re down by two points with seconds left in the game. Do you have your player go in for an easy layup for two points and send the game into overtime, or try to sink a three-point shot and win right then and there?

Jesse Walker and his colleagues at Cornell Univ. and the Univ. of Chicago examined every instance over a five-season period in which an NBA team took a shot when trailing by two points with less than 24 seconds (the limit on how long a team can have possession of the ball) in the fourth quarter or in overtime. Most teams went for the relatively surer thing: of 778 shot attempts, 553 (71.1%) were two-point attempts and 225 (28.9%) were three-point attempts. How well did that strategy work? Players were successful on 39.4% of their two-point shots at the end of the game, and their teams won 36.7% of the games that went into overtime. Although players made only 23.6% of their three-point shots, their teams ended up winning 73.6% of the time when they did so. Thus, the researchers determined that the probability of winning the game when attempting a two-point shot was 14.5% (39.4% × 36.7%), while the probability of winning the game when attempting a three-point shot was 17.3% (23.6% × 73.6%). Conservatism did not pay off.

The root of this behavior, Walker says, is sudden-death aversion (SDA). When decision-makers face a choice between a “fast” option that offers a greater chance of ultimate victory but also a nontrivial chance of immediate defeat, and a “slow” option with both a lower chance of immediate defeat and a lower chance of winning, they often select the slow option because of their aversion to sudden defeat. In doing so, they lower their chances of ultimate success. (To avoid confusion with “sudden-death overtime,” which is how ties are broken in football and hockey, it would be better to call this “sudden-defeat aversion.”) SDA, in turn, stems from our perception of risk — particularly the tendency to treat problems in isolation rather than as part of a larger whole, to weigh losses more heavily than gains, and to distort the likelihood of a negative outcome.

This issue’s special section (pp. 39–63) points out that process intensification (PI) has yet to transform the chemical process industries (CPI), despite its potential to achieve step changes in energy efficiency and capital cost reductions. Those responsible for a facility’s day-to-day profitability seek full-scale demonstration before they are willing to take a risk on new technology, and even then, the potential reward must be very compelling. Maybe we need to rethink our perception of the risks involved in adopting PI.

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Author Bios: 

Cynthia Mascone

Cindy Mascone is Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering Progress, AIChE’s member magazine. She has more than 25 years of experience as a technical editor and writer, including four years as the head of her own freelance consulting business, Engineered Writing. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.

She holds a BS in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon Univ., and has been an active member of AIChE and Society of Women Engineers.Read more

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