Saturday, August 12, 2017


328. Aversion to love’s labour loss

Social psychology has discovered ‘loss aversion’: people go to greater length to prevent loss (‘loss frame’) than to achieve gain (‘gain frame’).

This is being used in incentives to perform (‘nudging’). Rather than giving a reward after good performance, according to the logic of loss aversion it is more effective to give the reward in advance, on the condition that it will be revoked in case of bad performance (loss frame). People try harder to prevent loss of the reward than to gain it.

Here, I want to connect this with a previous discussion (items 120/121 in this blog) of forms of love. I discussed the idea that love in the form of eros, passionate love, is needed engage in a love relationship, as a basis for developing into the more robust philia, loving friendship. Why not go straight to the second and avoid the sound and fury of passion?

I speculated that the function of initial eros is to blind one to the risks of dependence, conflict and disappointment that relationships bring. Without the passion we would not so easily take the plunge.

Here I add, as a second possible reason, the effect of loss aversion. Being rewarded at the start, with the bliss of passion, one is more dedicated to the relationship, under the penalty of losing the love when not committing to the relationship and making sacrifices for it, in love’s labour being lost. 

The alternative of gradually building up a loving relationship to attain loving friendship in the longer run, making the necessary sacrifices and compromises, would, according to the principle of loss aversion, yield less commitment.

There is yet a third possible line of argument. Recently, it has been confirmed, what was really known earlier, that scarcity, the limits of some resource, can have a positive motivational effect. For example: To make more effort to save when money is getting short, or to finish a project as the deadline nears. Under the pressure of looming scarcity, people focus on efforts to deal with it, solving the problem.[i]

However, and this is a newer  insight, if scarcity persists, focus can turn into dysfunctional obsession. People then get so absorbed by persistent scarcity that in the panic of not being able to cope, they disregard other things that also matter, or flee into actions that only make matters worse. For example: take out a loan at an exorbitant interest, or disregard family and novel work opportunities to complete the project.   

That may also arise in love. Under a looming loss of love, one can focus on restoring, repairing it, paying more attention, committing to it. But if that does not yield satisfaction, it can degenerate into obsessive demands for attention or forced imposition of attention that are perceived as a cloying, and hinder rather than help the flourishing of love.

To return to the first explanation of eros as blindness to risk, the initial abundance of eros may limit the focus on getting love, which now gushes freely, but that may make the relationship more relaxed, less forced, less obsessed, less stressed for getting love, laying the basis for developing philia.       



[i] Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, Scarcity; The true cost of not having enough, 2013, London: Penguin.