Why Is It So Hard To Deal With Losing?

by JR Thorpe
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Have you ever thrown a Monopoly board across the room, angrily torn up a losing lottery ticket, or sulked for an hour after you lost a bet? Odds are high that you have, because being upset about losing is a classic human experience. It's been proven time and again that we deal poorly with finding out that we're not the best, whether we're silver medallists who are unhappier than bronze medallists (studies have shown that this is common, because the silver medalists were closer to winning) or just your average person throwing a hissy-fit over a lost game of Scrabble.

It turns out there are definite psychological reasons that many of us find losing so hard to bear. One reason is that both our brains and our bodies experience a phenomenon called negativity bias, which makes us more likely to latch onto and fixate on bad things in our lives. But it also turns out that humans may actually be far more worried about losing than we are inclined to feel happy about winning. That idea — which is called loss aversion — has been driving how people think about gambling and economics for decades. And even if what's on the line isn't survival but mere tokens, bits of card, or just respect from Uncle Bob, it seems to still hold mostly true.

So let's take a trip through the psychology of why we hate losing, and discover why it's so much easier to fixate on your losses than enjoy your wins.

The Brain Is Built To React More Dramatically To Negative News

Tell your brain you've lost and it's going to react. It's going to react far more dramatically, in fact, than it will when it is faced with positive news. This weird phenomenon has been proven time and time again, and it's called negativity bias. It's reflected on the very basic level of neural activity: an Ohio State University study reported by Psychology Today found that when people are faced with things they associate with negative emotions, the brain's electrical activity amps up. When they're shown positive things, the brain reacts with much less fervor. The result? We give more psychological and emotional weight to losing than we give to winning. We're not being humble or bratty; our brains are just built that way.

The interesting thing is that this bias isn't built up after a lifetime of experiencing loss or anything like that; it seems to first appear when we're very, very young. A 2008 study found that negativity bias appears in infants after only a few months' life experience. If you've ever wondered why news channels flood us with bad news, this is part of why. (The other reason is, of course, that there's a lot of bad news.) It turns out we react badly to losing partially because our brain devotes more energy to processing losses than it does to processing wins. Sorry.

We All Have A Bit Of Loss Aversion

Beyond brain mechanics, there appear to be behavioral reasons for why we hate losing so much, too. A famous one comes from the world of economic theory, and is centered on why people make financial decisions that seem to prioritize avoiding loss rather than making lots of money. The answer? A theory called loss aversion. First developed by economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky back in 1979, the theory is pretty basic: essentially, we want to avoid losing more than we love winning, and that makes us behave in certain ways.

As Kahneman and Tversky put it, “the aggravation that one experiences in losing a sum of money appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount”. Some experiments have shown that this massive imbalance in reaction doesn't necessarily show up when we're dealing with tiny amounts of money, but it kicks in when we're dealing with fairly low sums: for example, the negative emotions we feel about losing $50 in a bet are more intense than the positive emotions we feel about gaining $50. This is why, if we suffer a loss at a casino, we often feel like we have to keep on playing and trying to reverse it: we're geared to loathe loss, and it influences our decision-making.

Our Bodies React More Intensely To Loss

This is an interesting one: if you think you're feeling your loss physically, you may actually be right. A number of studies have found that our bodies react to losing in ways we might not even pick up on — and, of course, they react more intensely to losing than to winning. We're basically machines programmed to fixate on loss.

One 2011 study tracked eye movement and heart rate, and discovered that they become far more active in response to losing than winning. And numerous studies have found that our electro-dermal response (basically, the electrical characteristics in the skin) goes far more haywire for losses than wins, even if they're the same monetary amount. The really cool thing about this is that these things aren't conscious: they're part of the autonomic nervous system. We're feeling loss, and feeling it really hard, right down to our most basic bodily functions.

If that doesn't prove that we're pretty much all seriously bad losers down to our bones — and that gracious losers are not only classy, but superhumans who are basically able to go against their own biology — I don't know what does.

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