Sunday 26 May 2024

The Morality of Loss Aversion

Why do we admire the correction of a wrong more than a hundred implementations of the right? We seem to expect the latter so much that we take it for granted.

Why is that most of our fiction, stories and movies celebrate violence in the guise of punishing the wrong doer far far more than very non-violent acts worthy of appreciation? Is it because fiction exaggerates the rare which is what we like to see, rather than commemorate the good which is somehow boring by frequency.

We see the same in art. A hundred beautiful swans is not worthy of appreciation - they are merely decorative, but one swan among crows or pigeons or ducks is considered worthy?

People go on forest tours to see lions and tigers and rhinoceros and deadly animals in the wild but take no cognizance of cows and sheep and hens and cats and dogs etc which are part of  our daily lives. We enjoy flower shows of rare flowers much more than the dozens of beautiful flowers we use and see all around us daily. In an era of plentiful cheap but still excellent music, vast numbers of us would rather pay a huge amount to see a concert in person. Same with sports. The primary reason is excellence and rarity, obviously; but why do excellent things lose their specialty simply by being common?

I can understand rarity is why we appreciate beauty, why do we appreciate cruelty or ferocity or brutality - simply because it is rare?

This seems to pervade human experience across cultures and across time and across a wide variety of philosophical perception and influence. 

Economics have noted the phenomenon called "loss aversion." The vast majority of people are far more offended when they lose something of even small value than they are delighted when they gain something of much higher value. For example, people feel worse about losing ten rupees than they feel happy unexpectedly getting something worth hundred rupees, even unexpectedly.

What I have described before this seems to be a variation of this "loss aversion" concept, except in other fields. In almost every field of life.


  1. R there 2 - rather 3 separate concepts here?
    1. Excellence and Rarity - The human mind obviously cherishes or treasures the rare while it may love/take for granted, the common. The moment - an object, phenomenon, achievement becomes common it seizes to be excellent. It becomes average & so moves down from being treasured to loved. This is there everywhere. U cherish ur special dresses more, the once in a while blooming roses more, the child who visits u occasionally more. Ur day today clothes, regular aralis & stay at home child r part of ur life & loved like that & taken for granted.

    2. By nature, we all have a vile, cruel, ferocious side to us which we keep in chk, in civil society. So our primal instincts r unleashed when we watch gory stuff in movies or TV or safaris & our vicarious needs get met. Though this is not true for everyone. I hate violence in any form & don't watch it.

    3. Human tendency is to dwell on our miseries more than the happy moments. Endorsed by many philosophers. We all remember losing our loved ones more than the hundreds & thousands of happy moments spent with them. Loss in any form (money, face, person, competition) equates with misery & gets etched deeper in our hearts. Ask Anand. He remembers his loss with Carlsen more than all the world Championships.

    But above all, there is the factor of TIME. We do celebrate the more recent, in our lives than the long agos. So the unexpected money gain, successful exam result, or the pretty girl u met yday gets celebrated more than the losses, failures or the movie star u met 5 years back.

    1. Wonderful observations. Thank you.

      1. That something loses its excellence when it becomes common is hard for me to agree with. But that is definitely how the public's appreciation or value drops. That is also an economic reality, hence gold is conceived as more valuable than water or iron, which are common.
      2. Do we ALL have a vile ferocious side? I think the old Indian classficiation of human character as - saatvik, rajas and tamas seems to be true. And that some of it exists in all of us.
      3. The basic question I raise in this post is WHY we dwell more on misery than happiness? Puzzling.

  2. We're designed to pay attention to disruption to monotony. Any form of contrast creates a perception of this disruption. That's why any sort of contrast catches our attention:
    Wrong amidst the several right, or Right amidst the several wrong
    Violence amidst the several good, or Good amidst the largely violent
    A sudden loss of something, or A sudden gain of something
    A beautiful swan among several crows, or A crow amidst several beautiful swans
    A good act performed by someone bad, or A bad act performed by someone good

    And then there's relative contrast:
    A beautiful swan among several crows vs Several beautiful swans together
    A good act performed by a person of bad reputation, vs several good acts by a person known to be good always

    Beyond this, what we choose to dwell upon depends on the individual. Here, the weight that one associates with each of these contrasts needs to be factored in. I may give more weight to a loss or sadness or ill done, than to a gain or happiness or the good done. Someone else may be different.

    1. Yes. Very well phrased. I wonder why this is?

    2. In the context of your examples,

      Losing something:
      What is already ours is of more value to us than something we receive of seemingly higher value. So, losing counts as a miserable experience.

      Celebrating violence:
      Violence and indulgence are stimulants that produce exhilaration that is missing in the regular/non-violent acts. So, it appeals to those who seek it.

      A swan among crows:
      Swan's aesthetic appeal stands out better when surrounded by crows than swans. So, we get to appreciate the swan better.

      Rare flowers over common ones:
      What is common in our experience is part of us already. We tend to seek something new to add to our experience.

    3. Also, it is not quite right to stereotype man as one who dwells more in misery than happiness.
      In fact, what we get to see is, despite misery, man is constantly putting up a brave front and trying to make things work for him.

      Yes, he doesn't forget hurt or loss. But should he? It's as good as saying why should I go down when I have a throbbing headache, but the rest of my body is perfectly fine.
      We do not want to be functionally restricted and that is why we do pay attention to misery. But that is only to emerge out of it, not to dwell in it. So long as he learns to cope with his misery, it's just fine.