This is part two in our series exploring our fear of change. In part one we looked at the science behind uncertainty; in parts two and three we’ll explore how our habits and our relationships affect the way we think about change. In today’s post, we take a closer look at how our brains handle (or don’t handle) the prospect of loss. After all, making a change means letting go of what came before.
Distress over loss is a constant of the human condition. The novelist Anatole France wrote in the late 1800s that “all changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.” When we put off pursuing something we say we want, it’s sometimes because, in point of fact, we’re ambivalent.
We hate seeing financial — and emotional — investments go to waste
I wanted to understand why it’s so hard to give up what we have in exchange for something that seems better, so I called folks who are experts in how humans behave when they’re engaging in transactions — whether that’s getting paid $5 in a lab experiment or selling their homes. It turns out, there’s a lot of research into how people make decisions in the economic arena that can help us understand why it can be difficult to change course, even when we say we want to.
One reason is the sunk cost effect, which describes the way we resist abandoning a course of action — even though it’s not serving us anymore — because we’ve invested so much in it. Cognitive therapist Robert L. Leahy, author of “The Worry Cure,” told me this can apply to something as small as getting rid of expensive clothing we no longer like (I paid so much for it!), and as big as ending a bad relationship.
Several fears may underlie the sunk cost effect. For instance, we might resist throwing out an expensive jacket because we don’t want to “experience the sense of wasting money or regret throwing it out later.” Our discomfort with the idea of being wasteful may also explain why people resist walking out on terrible movies. Giving up on a bad relationship can present even higher stakes; in that scenario, Leahy writes, we may fear the possibility “that we will conclude we can’t make good decisions.”
It doesn’t always make sense. But perhaps human beings appear to be uniquely “irrational” within the animal world, Leahy observes, because we have the ability to reflect on our choices. We don’t just act in the moment — we reflect on our actions. And sometimes, that gets us stuck.
“Losses hurt twice as much as gain feels good”
What’s more, it appears we’re more driven by the prospect of losing than by the possibility of gain. I talked to science writer Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, and he points to research showing that “in order to get people to make a gamble on something, to try something new or place a bet, the potential payoff has to be about twice as what the loss would be. Another way of saying that is: Losses hurt twice as much as gain feels good.” If you’re considering moving and think it will hurt more to give up your current house than it will feel good to move into a new one, you may not move, even if doing so might actually make your life better.
A related phenomenon is what’s known as the endowment effect, where we value something more highly simply because we own it. This can make it harder to let go. “The moment you own something, the value of it goes up” in your own estimation, says Shermer, who recently got a lesson in this himself when he wildly overestimated how much his house would sell for and his real estate agent showed him an appraisal valuing the house at much less. “I said, ‘Oh my god, I’m delusional.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re just a homeowner.’” Shermer speculates that this desire to hang on to things may go as far back as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, living in a time when they had to cling tightly to their few, valuable tools.
But we aren’t as good as predicting the future as we think
Quirks of the mind explain other challenges people may have with the losses involved in making a change:
We struggle with the short-term sacrifice required to achieve a bigger goal — like going back to school to change careers, or training for a marathon — because we’re not always attuned to the long-term, says Shermer. “Our brains are evolved on the African savanna to pay attention to today, tomorrow, next week,” he told me.
We get regret wrong. Leahy told me that people tend to fear they’ll regret taking action, in case it sets them on the wrong course. But “research shows that over the long term people are more likely to regret what they did not do than regret what they have done,” he noted.
We think the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. What if we do screw up and bet on a loser? What if we start that new business and it fails? Fearing such an outcome is understandable, and it can be enough to keep us treading water in a crummy situation. But, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out in his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” humans underestimate their own resilience. There’s a reason, he writes, why some people describe their lives as ultimately made better by a hardship or trauma. “Negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to,” Gilbert observes.
That’s in part because of what he calls our “psychological immune system,” which kicks in to help us cope. (If I do start that business, and it does fail, my clever mind will come up with all sorts of useful lessons the experience taught me, and it will remind me of my bravery and perseverance for trying.)
For Shermer, that adds up to a lesson: “You should be probably be a little less risk-averse because things are probably not going to be as bad as you think it will be if things go south,” he says.
All of this points to the idea that the way we frame a change has a huge effect on whether we’ll actually make it. It’s worth questioning your assumptions about what the future might look like if you made a change and how keenly you’d feel the sacrifices involved. This leads me to the theme of my next post: How habits — both habits of thought and habits of being — can cause us to stick with the status quo.
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who has written for Slate, The New Republic, The Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Glamour and more. Previously she was a staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post for over a decade.