My tolerance for loss might be lower than most people.
And most people have low tolerance for loss.
It’s called “loss aversion,” and it’s a powerful motivator, according to Brigitte Madrian, a Harvard professor who appeared recently on NPR’s All Things Considered. “The literature suggests that people are twice as sensitive to losses as they are to gains.”
NPR was examining loss aversion as it relates to investing for retirement, but since I heard the story I’ve been examining my life in terms of my loss aversion.
People who know me well would describe me as competitive. For example, while playing a simple card game with my 6-year-old nephew last week, I actually weighed in my mind the relative benefits of winning. Really? Beating a 6-year-old was somehow important to me? (Just to prove I’m empathetic as well as competitive, I’m compelled to tell you my nephew won the game. Fair and square. Mostly.)
Am I competitive because I want to win? Or am I competitive because I don’t like losing even more? “Loss aversion” would suggest it’s the fear of losing that drives my impulses.
My aversion for loss explains a lot. Why did I get straight A grades in high school? Because I hated Bs more. Why do I hate weight lifting so much? Because as an ectomorph, I’ll never be good at it. Why did I tolerate bad behavior for 16 years in my first marriage? I did it not because I wanted to stay married but because I didn’t. Want. To get. A divorce.
I’m particularly conscious of my inclination toward loss aversion this week as I’ve attended to a health crisis in my sweet little dog.
Regular readers will remember the seizures experienced two months ago by my 6-year-old miniature schnauzer, Chloe (read that story here). We thought the incident was caused by a pain medication prescribed to her after a dental procedure. We thought Chloe was healed of her seizures. We were wrong.
On Wednesday, she started seizing again, and in the period of 22 hours, she had nine seizures. I’ll spare you the description of the sleeplessness, hand-wringing, financial repercussions and sorrow. Here’s the short version: We consulted our hometown veterinarian who referred us to an animal neurologist (!), who administered Valium to stop the seizures, diagnosed her as having idiopathic epilepsy (read: seizures of unknown cause), recommended hospitalizing Chloe overnight and prescribed Keppra, an anti-seizure medicine. Chloe will have to take anti-seizure meds forever.
Chloe is back home this afternoon. She’s not having convulsions, but she’s not herself.
Only time will tell if Keppra is the solution to Chloe’s epilepsy.
In the meantime, I’m left to question: Am I trying to save my dog (to win?) or am I trying to avoid losing my dog? Am I properly motivated to look out for Chloe’s health and, too, make sound financial decisions? Or am I willing to spend any amount to avoid my own emotional pain? If the medication causes permanent personality change in my little dog, am I willing to embrace a new normal or will I forever be mired in the grief of losing the sweet, healthy little dog I used to have?
I don’t know, and to be honest, not knowing feels like losing, too. Given my loss aversion, I need to remind myself that closed doors mean opened windows. And other bits of wisdom.
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
~ Winston Churchill