Is It Better To Have Loved and Lost?

Alfred Lord Tennyson may have had a thing with words, but he didn’t always get his facts right.  But then again, a good poet never let reality get in the way of composing compelling verse!  On this Valentine’s Day, let’s take a closer look at Tennyson’s haunting words (In Memoriam: 27, 1850):

“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”

According to both behavioral economists and recent advances in neuroscience, it’s actually much worse “to have loved and lost / than never to have loved at all.”  In fact, it’s twice as bad to lose the same amount than to gain it.  The amount of pleasure we extract from winning something is about 1/2 the amount of pain we feel at losing the same amount.  In other words, losing a love imposes as much grief as there is pleasure in having two such loves.  Perhaps Tennyson should have written:

“The mind holds it true, whate’re the mood
Avoiding loss is what we do;
To have loved and lost is as bad for us,
As loving twice is good.”

I know, I know: “stick to your day job.”  So why do behavioral economists claim that the pain associated with losing something is twice the strength of the pleasure at gaining the same thing?  Here are three supporting stories:

  1. They’ve conducted plenty of experiments with physical objects (coffee mugs seem to be the canonical choice) in which students are divided into two groups: mug owners and mug purchasers.  The owners are allowed to take the mug home that night and the next day they have to sell the mug to one of the ‘buyer’ students.  Sellers usually want about twice as much as the buyers are willing to pay.
  2. Imagine a simple game of fair chance (50/50) in which you bet a certain amount of money.  Tails, you lose your money.  Heads, you win $X.  When people are asked what value of $X would entice them to play — the answer is that X has to be twice the amount you can lose.
  3. In brain studies, they have measured a factor of two in the sensitivity of the brain to pain than to equal pleasure.  For some reason, getting and losing a certain amount of gourmet chocolate is the canonical prize.

In all of these studies, it seems that the human brain is twice as sensitive to an object’s loss than to its gain.  If only poets read more science, they might get it right!

But hang on … perhaps Tennyson knew this all along, and his words are meant to express how valuable love is in the first place – so valuable that it’s worth the (doubled) pain of loss!

Now that is completely irrational.  And it’s also very human.  🙂