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Cognition and perception, Decision making

People avoid unlikely opportunities, even when taking the chance costs nothing

Series of studies shows that people will even make extra effort in order to avoid an opportunity with a low chance of success.

25 November 2022

By Emma Young

If you were given the opportunity to win £100, and this would cost you nothing — no money, time or effort — but your chances of winning were very small, would you go for it? The surprising answer, according to new research in Psychological Science, is: probably not. Across seven studies on a total of 2,890 adults, Emily Prinsloo at Harvard University and colleagues found consistent evidence of an "aversion to low-probability gains". The aversion didn't just apply to financial gains. In fact, the work suggests that this 'opportunity neglect' could have an impact on various aspects of our lives.

In an initial study, some participants were told they had a 1% chance of being successful at applying either for a prestigious award or their dream job — and all they had to do was submit documents that they had already prepared. These people were far less likely to say that they would apply than participants who were told they had a 99% chance of success. This work "demonstrated that people tend to reject opportunities with low probability of success," the team writes. However, there were some costs involved: the time required to submit the application (brief though that was), and also the potential hit of being rejected. What, the team wondered, might happen if all the potential costs of a low probability gain were removed?

They explored this in the next study. Participants were told they had either a 99% chance of winning $1 or 1% chance of winning $99, and were asked if they'd like to 'gamble': yes, or no. The team found that 40% of the low-probability group said 'no', compared with only 1.4% of those who thought they had a near-certain chance of winning — even though taking the gamble would cost them nothing, and they could win a large amount.

This aversion to going for a low-probability gain seemed so strong, the team wondered if it would still be apparent even if there was a cost to opting out. In a subsequent online study, this is exactly what some participants faced. One group was told they had a 1% chance of winning $1, another group a 99% chance of winning $1. They were presented with two on-screen response options: 'yes' or 'no'. For some participants, the response was pre-set to 'yes' — so they had to switch to 'no' if they wanted to opt out of the chance to win. When this was the case, 22% of the low-probability group actually switched to 'no', much more than the mere 1% who switched in the high-probability group. "These results demonstrate that people actively wanted to avoid the low-probability opportunity, even incurring a transactional cost (albeit minimal) to do so," the team concludes.

The team included comprehension checks in these studies. These checks showed that most participants understood that taking the gamble wouldn't cost them any money — they knew they could only win, or lose nothing. So why didn't those with a very slim chance of success, but nothing to lose, go for it?

Yet further experiments revealed that when participants were encouraged to appreciate that rejecting a 1% chance of success meant giving themselves a 0% chance of success, 'opportunity neglect' was reduced. Without that kind of explicit instruction, it seems that we tend to under-rate small probabilities, the team argues (at least when the options are framed the way they were in these studies), and view a one in 100 chance of something as pretty much equivalent to 0.

These studies do show that a good chunk of people opt not to go for a long shot, even when it costs them nothing. In the real world, though, going for something with a slim chance of success — such as submitting an abstract to a top journal — does often carry costs. And, the team notes, one reason people may choose not to take a chance is their desire to avoid the disappointment of failure. But if we know that we have only a small chance of success, we shouldn't expect to feel too disappointed if we don't succeed, the researchers argue — and we should try not to over-estimate the impacts of any disappointment. "Even if people do feel badly, these negative emotions may be short-lived," they write.

Their advice? To remember that rejecting a low-probability opportunity is to give yourself no chance at all of success. "After all, 'you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.'"