Would You Risk Death For An Olympic Gold Medal? Temporal Discounting And The Zika Virus

The Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal is presented during a ceremony at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, June 1
The Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal is presented during a ceremony at the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Rio will host the Olympic games starting on Aug. 5, amid the worst recession to hit Brazil in decades, an outbreak of the Zika virus and the ongoing political crisis that saw President Dilma Rousseff impeached and suspended from office. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In the run-up to the start of the Summer Olympics on Friday, a lot of stories have focused on the health risks from the Zika virus. Fear of the virus is fueled by every high-profile announcement of an athlete skipping the Olympics.

Athletes are having to make a calculation about whether to participate, weighing the cost of contracting the virus against the upside of being an Olympian and, possibly, a gold medalist. The health risks are very small, but potentially devastating. A recent article on Vox.com marshalled the analyses of the leading international health organizations, concluding the risk of contracting the Zika virus is significantly lower than that of contracting measles or rubella while traveling. More importantly, Vox recognized that the Zika risk pales compared to Rio's health dangers from its "massive sewage contamination problem" and carrying back the flu, which is "much more likely" and "much more dangerous".

What I find most interesting are the values athletes have to plug into the calculation of whether to participate. These considerations end up being relevant to us all: Would you risk your life for a gold medal? How much do we sacrifice pursuing our biggest goals -- our equivalent of Olympic gold? How much happiness will we get from achieving those goals?

You'd think most people would say, "Serious illness or death or endangering my future children couldn't be worth it; no one would sacrifice that for a gold medal." Except they would.

When I was in grad school, I read about a sports physician who asked elite athletes if they would take a drug that would win them a gold medal but also kill them in five years (See "Goldman's dilemma"). About half said they would enter such a deal. Some later surveys confirmed this result, and many others have undermined it. But we know from the sports headlines that some number of world-class athletes have risked health and life to succeed (even with the added risk of having their success discounted if discovered).

The athletes skipping the Olympics appear to be in the minority, and that minority has something in common. Almost all of them are golfers and tennis players. In golf and tennis, a gold medal has less value than in other sports. Golf and tennis competitors don't grow up and make sacrifices in order to win an Olympic gold medal. They dream of winning the Masters, the Open Championship, Wimbledon, Roland Garros, etc. (This doesn't even include the gigantic financial rewards of succeeding in their sports.) Because they place a lower value on the gold medal, they are less likely to sacrifice their future, risking the downside of contracting Zika, to win one. (I imagine these athletes might make a different choice if they had to risk Zika to win a major in either sport).

Why would an athlete risk their health to participate in the Olympics? Because humans generally overvalue immediate rewards and undervalue long-term costs. Ironically, Olympic athletes are actually much better than most of us at delaying gratification, training for years to achieve distant, remotely attainable goals. They are, however, subject to the same limitation we all have in imagining the future: we overestimate how happy achievements will make us. We imagine the moment of achievement -- of maximum happiness -- and project that as if that will become our permanent state. Those medal ceremonies are so dramatic and emotional because that is the moment of maximum happiness. And if you think your happiness would change so much because of one event, wouldn't you sacrifice just about anything (including your long term health) to get it?

The problem is that these types of achievements don't really make us significantly happier in the long run.

We are no different than Olympic athletes, striving for achievements because we project that the happiness we experience at the moment of success will sustain throughout our lives. Financial planner Carl Richards recognized this in a thoughtful New York Times article last week, "More Money, More Success, More Stuff? Don't Count on More Happiness." He cited the results of studies showing that even lottery winners weren't any happier than other people. The academic term for it, he explained, is the hedonic treadmill: "Despite all our efforts, we never get anywhere. We experience small ups and downs, but by and large, our happiness stays the same."

Studies of people facing devastating challenges in their lives find the same thing. Most people think becoming paralyzed or losing a loved one would make it impossible to be happy. People actually experiencing those things eventually return to about their base level of happiness. Such emotional and physical losses are tragic and initially make people very unhappy. But we adapt.

Carl Richards announced in the Times article that after 20 years on the treadmill, he was getting off. He decided to move to New Zealand for a year and spend more time finding things that bring happiness to him and his family.

The "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," as the late Jim McKay put it, makes compelling entertainment out of events like the Olympics. But unless the winners die on the medal stand, they have to return to their lives with some satisfaction but no guarantee of happiness.