In the course of some work I'm doing on designing prize challenges I just came across a recent presentation by Tom Kalil (text here and slides here) of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was presenting to President Obama a rationale for placing "Grand Challenges" at the heart of America's innovation strategy.I won't summarise the presentation as I see that this Boing Boing blog post has already done a good job of that.
But what struck me was a question nestled in towards the end, which was posed back in March by Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA.
"What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"
She argues that our fear of failure constrains our ability to come up with "truly amazing" innovations.
This is very much in line with the evidence from psychology and behavioural science about loss aversion - the tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses, to acquiring gains.
But could it also be the prospect of failure that spurs us on, and makes challenging ourselves addictive, and habitual. Athletes, online gamers and others engaging in competition know this, at least subconsciously. In an interesting Econtalk podcast that I heard a couple of years ago, Edward Castronovatalks about how online role playing game developers continually tweak the balance of risk and success so that gamers strive to higher and higher levels of effort and attainment. Make the dragon too easy to kill and the gamers get bored.
So when it comes to Grand Challenges, whether it's the X Prize or World of Warcraft, isn't fear of failure an essential source of motivation to keep us in the game?