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The Danger of “Nothing to Lose”

When there are potential benefits and effectively no marginal costs to taking a risk or engaging in a conflict, that is what people will do. Those who would like to avoid unnecessary collateral damage or instability must be mindful not only of the scale of the stakes, but also of how they are distributed.

NEW YORK – Presidents, generals, dictators, and ordinary people take big risks when they have nothing to lose, similar to a quarterback in American football throwing a so-called Hail Mary pass. But the consequences of such a strategy in politics, war, and business are usually more serious than the outcome of a football game. In the Middle East, for example, it has produced continuous conflict because the warring parties feel as though they have nothing to lose.

The brokerage firm TD Ameritrade’s annual collegiate stock-market contest illustrates the incentives when there is “nothing to lose.” Each team begins with a paper allocation of $500,000, and a final cash prize goes to the team whose portfolio earned the highest profit in the space of a month. In 2015, students from Southeast Missouri State University beat 475 other entrants by turning $500,000 into $1.3 million. None of the winning students knew anything about finance, so how did they do it? According to the team captain, “We had nothing to lose. If we end up losing all $500,000, oh well. We basically just decided to be as risky as possible.”

This go-for-broke approach exploited the rules of a contest that rewarded only the biggest gain, while ignoring all the losses. The students were protected against losing money, so they devised their strategy accordingly. This anecdote may sound trivial, but that same logic is often followed by protagonists in real-world conflicts.

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