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.  🙂

2 Responses to Is It Better To Have Loved and Lost?

  1. roman voronka says:

    Your second example is counterintuitive. i would think that one would play if the winning amount is more that the possible loss. The question of how much more is also relevant. let’s assume the game is repeated process of thowing a fair coin

    win 1.50 lose 1.00 would not play because it’s not worth the effort
    win 15.00 lose 10.00 would not play because not worth the effort
    win 150 lose 100 will play
    win 1500 lose 1000 will play
    win 15000 lose 10000 will play
    win 150000 lose 100000 will play reluctantly. Expected value per game 25,000 BUT the probability of substantial loss is not small. The probability that I could lose 200000 after 2 games is .25.
    win 1,500,000 lose 1,000,000 would not play. it’s not that it’s a bad game, but it tells you something about my assets.

    This last case illustrates in a primitive way, why one should not sell ones house and mortgage the children to invest in a “great tip”stock.

    • I agree that it’s counterinuitive and contradictory to the whole notion of “homo economicus” or “homo rationalicus”: humans aren’t rational. The fact is that our gut feel about what’s reasonable to play is a game that pays twice what you could lose: that’s the brain’s ‘math’ if you will, and it’s not rationally correct. But measuring this effect provides some insight into our decision making. Again, we feel pain of loss twice – literally twice – as acutely as we feel benefit of a similar size gain. Weird, but true.

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