Chris Borland Makes the Hard Choice to Go Long

Chris Borland’s dramatic decision to retire at age 24 can teach us all something about the way we value the present and make hard decisions about the future.

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Chris Borland tackles Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez in 2012 while still a college player for Wisconsin.

Steve Schar | Flickr

On March 16, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement from the NFL after one season (and at the age of 24). Borland was ranked as one of the top rookies of the year, and his retirement represents a huge blow to the 49ers. But Borland’s reason for quitting is the really interesting part of the story.

In an interview with ESPN, Borland said he was retiring because of concerns over the long-term effects of head injuries. Borland continued, "[f]rom what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk." Why is this so interesting? To arrive at his decision, Borland had to overcome three significant biases that tend to shape people’s decision-making.

We know from research that most people are incredibly present-biased: they prefer the present to the future, and they focus on short-term outcomes often at the cost of long-term gains. Our focus on the near-term is so strong that small delays in near-term gratification are seen as much more costly than bigger delays further in the future, a pattern that economists refer to as hyperbolic discounting. For example, an individual might be willing to accept $75 today in place of $100 next week, but if they couldn’t get their hands on the $75 for a year, they’d be more willing to wait an extra month for the full $100. In Borland’s case, his decision means giving up over $2 million in the next three years in exchange for better health decades from now.

What makes Borland’s decision even more remarkable is the actual cause of the worst health outcomes for many players. While players and fans might expect only big hits to have big consequences — an effect of what psychologists refer to as the representativeness heuristic, a mental shortcut whereby we expect causes and effects to be similar — it’s rarely a single traumatic injury that causes the most harm. Rather, it’s the many small hits — over 1,000 a season for linemen like Borland, according to the Globe and Mail — that players likely don't even pay attention to that can lead to the deterioration of brain tissue and cognitive impairment. This can lead to another cognitive bias driven by mental accounting known as the “adding up effect.” Simply put, we have a hard time seeing how many small things add up to large problems over time.

Finally, research on risk and temporal construal — our psychological sense of distance in time — has demonstrated that the further removed a risk is in time the less aversive it becomes. In other words, people are usually willing to take on more risk if they won’t have to face the consequences until some time in the distant future.

This means that Borland made quite an extraordinary decision: he chose the future over the present, he saw how many small events could add up to one large negative outcome, and he weighted that future risk the way he would weight current risk. Those are three very large biases to overcome. It's also a decision that many players in his same position would never make (or potentially even consider). As one player said in response to Borland's decision: "No offense to anyone, but I'm playing until I can't anymore. I love this game too [sic] much. " I would guess that many players feel the same way (not to mention the incentives that come along with continuing to play).

What I want to know is how Borland was convinced to give up millions of dollars and fame now — and potentially later — for his long-term health and increased longevity in the future. In describing his decision the article from ESPN says, "[a]fter the season, Borland said, he consulted with prominent concussion researchers and former players to affirm his decision. He also scheduled baseline tests to monitor his neurological well being going forward 'and contribute to the greater research.' After thinking through the potential repercussions, Borland said the decision was ultimately 'simple.'"

Whatever techniques his family, friends, and researchers used to convince Borland to make the right choice for the future, they are techniques that could be ultimately valuable to anyone facing intertemporal tradeoffs between the want and the should — the things that give us short-run pleasure at high long-term costs. 

A version of this article originally appeared on the personal blog of Elizabeth Webb under the title “Football & Hyperbolic Discounting.”

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