Tuesday, August 7, 2018

"Why the Most Important Idea in Behavioral Decision-Making Is a Fallacy"

From Scientific American, July 31:

The popular idea that avoiding losses is a bigger motivator than achieving gains is not supported by the evidence
Loss aversion, the idea that losses are more psychologically impactful than gains, is widely considered the most important idea of behavioral decision-making and its sister field of behavioral economics. To illustrate the importance loss aversion is accorded, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, wrote in his 2011 best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that “the concept of loss aversion is certainly the most significant contribution of psychology to behavioral economics.” As another illustration, when Richard Thaler was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics, the phrase “loss aversion” appeared 24 times in the Nobel Committee’s description of his contributions to science.

Why has such profound importance been attributed to loss aversion? Largely, it is because it is thought to reflect a fundamental truth about human beings—that we are more motivated by our fears than by our aspirations. This conclusion, it is thought, has implications for almost every aspect of how we live our lives.

However, as documented in a recent critical review of loss aversion by Derek Rucker of Northwestern University and myself, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, loss aversion is essentially a fallacy. That is, there is no general cognitive bias that leads people to avoid losses more vigorously than to pursue gains. Contrary to claims based on loss aversion, price increases (ie, losses for consumers) do not impact consumer behavior more than price decreases (ie, gains for consumers). Messages that frame an appeal in terms of a loss (eg, “you will lose out by not buying our product”) are no more persuasive than messages that frame an appeal in terms of a gain (eg, “you will gain by buying our product”).

People do not rate the pain of losing $10 to be more intense than the pleasure of gaining $10. People do not report their favorite sports team losing a game will be more impactful than their favorite sports team winning a game. And people are not particularly likely to sell a stock they believe has even odds of going up or down in price (in fact, in one study I performed, over 80 percent of participants said they would hold on to it).

To be sure it is true that big financial losses can be more impactful than big financial gains, but this is not a cognitive bias that requires a loss aversion explanation, but perfectly rational behavior. If losing $10,000 means giving up the roof over your head whereas gaining $10,000 means going on an extra vacation, it is perfectly rational to be more concerned with the loss than the gain. Likewise, there are other situations where losses are more consequential than gains, but these require specific explanations not blanket statements about a loss aversion bias....MORE
Possibly related:
"Men in a mating frame of mind become less loss-averse"
Ogilvy & Mather UK Vice-Chairman, Rory Sutherland, Talks Behavioral Economics
Behavioral Finance at The World's First Stock Exchange
Nobel Laureate Richard H. Thaler on the End of Behavioral Finance
Investing: "Have the Behaviorists Gone Too Far?"

The Rory Sutherland piece is especially worthwhile.