This article studies whether measured risk attitudes and athletic success are related. We measured the risk preferences of the players of the Dutch men's field hockey team, the reigning European champions, and runners-up in the 2012 Olympics and in the 2014 World Championships, and compared those with a matched sample of recreational hockey players. We had the rare opportunity to interview each professional individually. Our measurements were based on prospect theory. We disentangled the various components of risk attitudes using a parameter-free method that makes it possible to completely observe prospect theory without imposing simplifying assumptions and that captures individual heterogeneity. The professionals were more optimistic for gains than the nonprofessionals: they overweighted the probability of winning compared with the nonprofessional group. Utility curvature (diminishing sensitivity) and loss aversion were very close in the 2 groups. As probabilities were given, the difference in optimism was not caused by inaccurate beliefs. It was also unrelated to differences in overconfidence or in venturesomeness and impulsivity, 2 psychological traits associated with risk taking. Our findings indicate that success in sports may be related to differences in optimism. They are consistent with previous findings that optimistic people are more successful and that optimism may be associated with better outcomes.

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Keywords Optimism, Prospect theory, Risk, Sport psychology
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Series ERIM Top-Core Articles
Journal Decision
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Bleichrodt, H, Haridon, L', O, & van Ass, D. (2018). The risk attitudes of professional athletes. Decision, 5(2), 95–118. doi:10.1037/dec0000067