When a big event whose outcome you’ve anxiously awaited is coming up, it’s easy to focus on the event itself and not its aftermath. Whether it’s the presidential election or the Super Bowl, odds makers may lay out their bets but no one knows what will happen until it’s over. It might even be you who's running or competing. When it's over, you’re left with the elation of having achieved victory or the despondency of living with dashed hopes and dreams. New research on the psychology of losing shows just how these losses affect us and how we then move on and approach the next major contests we face.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.
Editor: Talha Khalid
In a 2016 paper examining the ways that individuals respond to a loss in a gambling scenario, University of Exeter (UK) psychologist Frederick Verbruggen and colleagues proposed that when people make mistakes or encounter a loss, they should become more cautious. Our cognitive control mechanisms should be set in these cases so that we “suppress or replace impulsive, habitual, or inappropriate actions” (p. 1). The gambling experiment they devised was intended to simulate the effects of winning and losing on cautiousness as measured by response latencies to subsequent trials. Wins should lead gamblers to become more impulsive and losses should trigger a slow-down or stop response.
In one set of experiments, the British team measured the tendency of both winners and losers to gamble in subsequent trials, and in the second set of experiments, the key measure of interest was the tendency of winners and losers to take their time during a perceptual judgment task. Throughout the studies, all of which were conducted on undergraduates, the Verbruggen et al. researchers found a consistent pattern in which losers became more, not less, risky in their bets and in their perceptual judgments.
“Losses,” they concluded, “seem to have a general effect on actions,” but in the opposite direction than they had expected.
The discrepancy between the actual and expected outcomes pointed to, according to the authors, the role of motivation and emotion when people encounter a loss. The smart thing would be to take it slow, but because people don’t like the unpleasantness of losing, they want to move on as quickly as possible to try to achieve a more favorable outcome. The two components of behavior—what to do and how vigorously to do it—become dissociated under conditions of negative outcomes.
There was a way to encourage participants to be more cautious after a loss. This was the experimental condition in which participants were asked to pause and reflect on the loss before they were allowed to go to the next trial. It wasn’t the pause alone that led to more considered behavior, but the instruction to think about the loss. Additionally, if participants believed that by acting quickly, their chances would increase, the beneficial effect of being encouraged to pause and reflect could be entirely negated.
The flip side of finding that a loss increased a person’s tendency to behave in a risky manner was that a win led people to be more cautious. It’s as if people want to hold onto what they’ve got from winning rather than rashly give it up.
How do the Verbruggen et al.’s findings translate into the kinds of losses that occur after a significant real-life event rather than a simulation? Further, how can we better understand how people respond to losses that their behavior didn’t create? In making the translation into these other scenarios, it seems likely that the same sort of “dissociation” described by the British research team would also occur when you’ve lost your “bet” in an election or playoff game. Had you bet on the other contender, you’d be on top of the world, not feeling the crushing emotion of defeat. The bad mood you’re in would be replaced by joy and celebration. It’s also possible that you’ve lost actual money in the process, but this might not be causing as much grief as the loss of the person or team in whom you’d placed your trust and support.
Now is the time, then, to reflect on the outcome and realize that your actions didn’t control the outcome of the event, match, or election (though you may have voted in the election). You may be tempted to try to put the event behind you as quickly as possible. However, that unpleasant emotion you’re experiencing may have beneficial effects if you allow yourself to sit with it. If you’ve lost on a bet, then it’s a good idea to ponder why you lost and whether your odds will be any better on your next one before you jump into it. If it’s an election, the answer isn’t to vow never to vote again, but to sort out just how much control you actually had over the outcome. You can also remind yourself that in politics, as in sports, there has to be a winner and a loser.
In addition to coping with your own feelings of loss, there’s the matter of how you move on and relate with the people in your life who were rooting for the other side. The battle lines that were drawn between you and those who favored the opposing team or candidate now must be erased as you attempt to restore and heal. If you’re the winner, remind yourself of how much it hurt when you were on the negative side of the outcome. Those who voted or rooted for the losers won’t appreciate your gloating.
It’s also important to be aware of our tendencies, shown by social psychologists, to engage in the ingroup-outgroup bias where we vilify those who are just like us but happen to be on opposite sides of an issue, team loyalty, religion, or value system. There’s also the halo effect, or its opposite, where we assume that because someone has one quality or characteristic, that person is all good or all bad. As adults, we have the cognitive capacity to see issues in all their complexity and not just as all black or all white. If your friend, lover, relative, coworker or neighbor disagrees with your position, no matter how trivial or how large, there may be reasons for this, and redeeming features that this person has as well. In the aftermath of a divisive election, playoff, or resolution of a critical value difference, you can each benefit from being reminded of the other person’s fundamental humanity.
Political psychologists claim that the U.S. has become increasingly polarized over the past 40 years, leading us to becoming unable to talk to others who vote on different party lines. There’s even a tendency for people to unfriend social network partners who express views counter to their own. However, we don’t have to give up on ever seeing eye to eye with those who oppose us. Fulfillment comes not just from communicating with those who agree with you, but from finding ways to respect, and learn from, those with whom communication never seemed possible.