Twice as Miserable

People hate losses.. Roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy. In more technical language, people are “loss averse.” How do we know this?

Consider a simple experiment. Half the students in a class are given coffee mugs with the insignia of their home university embossed on it. The students who did not get a mug are asked to examine their neighbor’s mugs. Then, mug owners are invited to sell their mugs and nonowners are invited to buy them. They do so by answering the question “At each of the following prices, indicate whether you would be willing to (give up your mug/buy a mug).”

The results show that those with mugs demand roughly twice as much to give up their mugs as others are willing to pay to get one. Thousands of mugs have been used in dozens of replications of this experiment, but the results are nearly always the same. Once I have a mug, I don’t want to give it up. But if I don’t have one, I don’t feel an urgent need to buy one.

What this means is that people do not assign specific values to objects. When they have to give something up, they are hurt more than they are pleased if they acquire the very same things.

Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, Nudge

welcome to Holland

It’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting. After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met. It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

Emily Perl Kingsley

Throwing Good Money after Bad

Imagine a company that has already spent $50 million on a project. The project is now behind schedule and the forecasts of its ultimate returns are less favorable than at the initial planning stage. An additional investment of $60 million is required to give the project a chance. An alternative proposal is to invest the same amount in a new project that currently looks likely to bring higher returns. What will the company do? All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs drives into the blizzard, throwing good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure.

(This) fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects. I have often observed young scientists struggling to salvage a doomed project when they would be better advised to drop it and start a new one. Fortunately, research suggests that at least in some contexts the fallacy can be overcome. (It) is taught as a mistake in both economics and business courses, apparently to good effect: there is evidence that graduate students in these fields are more willing than others to walk away from a failing project.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Overcoming an Aversion to Loss

Most of us don’t like losing. In fact, it’s what the academics call loss aversion. We feel the pain of loss more acutely than we feel the pleasure of gain. In other words, we may like to win, but we hate to lose.

The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that even something as simple as a coin toss demonstrates our aversion to loss. In a recent interviews, Mr. Kahneman shared the usual response he gets to his offer of a coin toss:

“In my classes, I say: ‘I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?’

“People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve been doing the same thing with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.”

In other words, we’re willing to leave a lot of money on the table to avoid the possibility of losing.

We see this aversion to loss play out in the lives of real people when we try to make smart money decisions, especially when it’s time to make a change to our investments. It almost doesn’t matter what change we need to make. We hesitate to change from the current situation because it means having an opinion and making a decision. And with a decision comes the very real possibility that we’ll make the wrong one. Sticking with the status quo feels much better even if we know it’s costing us money.

To get past our aversion to loss, I recommend taking the Overnight Test.

Imagine you went to bed, and overnight someone sold your losing stock and replaced it with cash. The next morning, you have a choice: You can buy back the stock for the same price, or you can take that cash and (do something else with it). What would you do?

Most people wouldn’t buy the stock back.

Just by changing your perspective (investing cash versus getting rid of the stock), you can gain clarity and have the emotional space to make the decision you know you need to make.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. While we’ll probably never embrace loss, it’s good to know that we can find ways to work around our aversion to it when it makes sense.

Carl Richards writing in the New York Times

 

Driving in a Snowstorm to see a Game

Two avid sports fans plan to travel 40 miles to see a basketball game. One of them paid for his ticket: the other was on his way to purchase a ticket when he got one free from a friend. A blizzard is announced for the night of the game. Which of the two ticket holders is more likely to brave the blizzard to see the game?

The answer is immediate: we know that the fan who paid for his ticket is more likely to drive. Mental accounting provides the explanation. We assume that both fans set up an account for the game they hoped to see. Missing the game will close the accounts with a negative balance. Regardless of how they came by their ticket, both will be disappointed – but the closing balance is distinctly more negative for the one who bought a ticket and is now out of pocket as well as deprived of the game. Because staying home is worse for this individual, he is more motivated to see the game and therefore more likely to make the attempt to drive into a blizzard.

The emotions that people attach to the state of their mental accounts are not acknowledged in standard economic theory. An Econ would realize that the ticket has already been paid for and cannot be returned. Its cost is “sunk” and the Econ would not care whether he had bought the ticket to the game or got it from a friend (if Econs have friends). To implement this rational behavior, (the fan) would have to be aware of the counterfactual possibility. “Would I still drive into this snowstorm if I had gotten the ticket free from a friend?” It takes an active disciplined mind to raise such a difficult question.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Hurting from Loss

Love anything that lives--a person, a pet, a plant--and it will die. Trust anybody and you may be hurt; depend on anyone and that one may let you down. The price of cathexis (letting something or someone become important to us) is pain. If someone is determined not to risk pain, then such a person must do without many things: having children, getting married, the ecstasy of sex, the hope of ambition, friendship - all that makes life alive, meaningful and significant.

Move out or grow in any dimension and pain as well as joy will be your reward. A full life will be full of pain. But the only alternative is not to live fully or not to live at all.. The attempt to avoid legitimate suffering lies at the root of all emotional illness.

M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Resilient in the face of trauma

For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events—such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime—must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience them. This assumption has been so deeply embedded in our conventional wisdom that people who don’t have dire reactions to events such as those are sometimes diagnosed as having a pathological condition known as “absent grief.” But recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong that the absence of grief is quite normal, and that rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma. The loss of a parent or spouse is usually sad and often tragic, and it would be perverse to suggest otherwise.

But as one group of researchers noted, “Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event.” Instead, studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience

Why do most of us shake our heads in disbelief when an athlete who has been through several grueling years of chemotherapy tells us that “I wouldn’t change anything,” or when a musician who has become permanently disabled says, “If I had it to do all over again, I would want it to happen the same way,” or when quadriplegics and paraplegics tell us that they are pretty much as happy as everyone else? The claim made by people who have experienced events such as these seem frankly outlandish to those of us who are merely imagining those events—and yet, who are we to argue with the folks who’ve actually been there?

The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling into Happiness

wired to blunder

We're hardwired to make blunders and avoiding them requires nearly superhuman discipline. Four tendencies conspire to sabotage our decisions at critical moments:

OVERCONFIDENCE.

We think we're smarter than we are, so we think the stocks we've chosen will deliver even when the market doesn't. When evidence contradicts us, we're blinded by...

CONFIRMATION BIAS.

We seek information that supports our actions and avoid information that doesn't. We interpret ambiguous evidence in our favor. We can cite an article that confirms our view but can't recall one that challenges it. Even when troubling evidence becomes unavoidable, we come up against...

STATUS QUO BIAS.

We like leaving things the way they are, even when doing so is objectively not the best course. Plenty of theories attempt to explain why, but the phenomenon is beyond dispute. And supposing we could somehow fight past these crippling biases, we'd still face the mother of all irrationalities in behavioral finance...

LOSS AVERSION (and its cousin, regret avoidance)

We hate losing more than we like winning, and we're terrified of doing something we'll regret. So we don't buy and sell when we should because maybe we'll realize a loss or miss out on a gain.

These tendencies are so deep-rooted that knowing all about them isn't nearly enough to extinguish them. The best we can do is wage lifelong war against them and hope to gain some ground.

Geoff Colvin (from his Fortune Magazine article "Investor March Madness: We're Wired for Blunders, but can Improve Odds")

Depression Lingers

There is a chain of events follow the awareness of a loss that starts with mind-body chain of events that leads to depression. While it mind can resolve the loss, the body still needs time to recover. The biochemical changes accompanying the depression take time to return to normal. One may continue to feel depressed long after the problem seems to be resolved.

This is important to remember because many people who experience such temporary losses do not allow time for the body’s chemistry to heal. They are likely to interpret their continued low mood as a sign of failure, reject themselves, and create further loss and depression. Many depressions are perpetuated this way.

The healthiest way to deal with sadness following restoration of the loss is simply to accept it. Give the body time to heal after the mind is recovered.

Archibald Hart, Counseling the Depressed

what to let go of

What it is time to let go of is not so much the relationship or the job itself, but rather the hopes, fears, dreams, and beliefs that we have attached to them. If you let go only of the job or the relationship, you’ll just find another one and attach the same hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs to it. A loss is best seen as the cue that it is time to let go of the inner thing.

William Bridges, The Way of Transition

The Lessons of Elders

Being unwilling to accept defeat—is a guarantee that one will never learn the lessons that must be learned if one is to mature. That is why the elders that we need so badly in our success-obsessed society are not the natural-born winners who rose to the top without a setback. Such people are easy to idealize, but they have little to teach us. What elders need to help younger people learn is that without releasing the fruits of one season, they cannot blossom into the next. Such elders can show us, because they have done it many times, how to let go of who we have been to clear the ground for the growth of who we are becoming. They can help us to understand the transition-related emotions of grief (sadness for what have let go of), disorientation (when we are lost in the neutral zone), and fear (when the challenges of the unknown new beginnings are overwhelming).

William Bridges,  The Way of Transition

Embracing Uncertainty

Research by Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, suggests that learning to accommodate feelings of uncertainty is not just the key to a more balanced life but often leads to prosperity as well.

For one project, she interviewed 45 successful entrepreneurs, all of whom had taken at least one business public. Almost none embraced the idea of writing comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research.

They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls "effectuation." Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the "affordable loss principle." Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.

Oliver Burkeman writing in the Wall Street Journal