Writing and the Law of Loss Aversion

by Jenny Hansen

I was just introduced to the Law of Loss Aversion on the marketing side of my life and was shocked at how much I see it in action in the writing world.

What exactly is the Law of Loss Aversion?

It describes the very human foible that we feel loss more than we feel gain. Researchers have proved that you will spend more emotion on a $100 loss than you will on a $100 windfall. In other words, a real (or even a potential) loss will be more severe emotionally than an equivalent gain.

The two researchers who defined this theory, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, actually showed that losses carry more than twice the psychological impact of gains. So it would be common for a person to feel an equal amount of contentment between not losing $5 and finding $10 on the street.

Loss Aversion is why gambling is so seductive. Marketers and casinos know you can’t deal with the pain of losing out on an opportunity. This is also why “10% off for today only” or “6 hours left” are successful marketing strategies.

Bottom Line: We hate losses even more than we love gains.

It’s not completely rational, but it’s true. Here’s Loss Aversion in action:

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Managing Loss in Writing

Writing is a profession where we’re required to accept loss as an intrinsic part of our jobs. We fight an uphill battle all the time, in my humble opinion. Writing is about heart and vision and drive. On the other hand, the Business of Writing is about numbers and sales and distribution.

We bring heart and emotion to our work. We have to, or the stories will suck. Or worse, they won’t get written.

Yet the selling of our work is in many ways heartless by nature. Emotion has no place in numbers – you’re either selling or you aren’t. Marketing metrics are pretty black and white.

What do writing losses look like?

The losses writers endure can feel endless – like a thousand paper cuts in any given year. Some losses may feel smaller or larger, but all of the items below are usually perceived as losses.

  • Rejection from an agent or editor
  • Edits requiring you to change an entire story
  • Not finaling in a contest
  • Losing your manuscript with no backup
  • Losing a critique partner
  • Missing an important deadline
  • Bad reviews
  • Not having a contract renewed
  • Your main contact leaving (ex: publishers, marketing firms, publicists)

What do our writing wins look like?

And just when we think about quitting…a “win” comes rolling in. They might look like:

  • Acceptance from an agent or editor
  • Edits showing that your [fill in the blank] loves your story
  • Finaling in a contest
  • Gaining a great critique partner
  • A great review
  • Getting a contract renewed
  • Winning an award

How do you manage Loss Aversion?

So, if it’s human nature to fear loss more strongly than we embrace joy, how do we keep ourselves motivated in a profession that guarantees loss? How do we fight against being more bummed out about a bad review than feeling joy over a good review?

In his Medium article, How Loss Aversion is Driving Your Fear of Failure, Daniel Schleien gives five solid tips about how to overcome loss aversion:

1. Be grateful.

Last year in our annual post on Writerly Thanks, I shared a quote from a conference I attended called LIFT:

“Gratitude lives in the same part of the brain as fear. You can’t feel both at the same time.”

– Danny Iny

Especially amid a pandemic that included homeschooling (*shudders*), I badly needed Danny’s advice. And I needed to read that there’s neuroscience backing up those claims that a practice of gratitude actually rewires the brain.

Essentially, keeping a list of the things you’re grateful for leaves less room in your brain for fear and angst.

2. Think long-term.

Lists help with this. Gratitude journals. Reminders on the mirror. Anything that makes you remember your wins will help keep your long-term goal-thinking more rational. If the losses take up twice as much of your energy, a review of your wins and a list of what you love about your work-in-progress will always save your writing day.

Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and start being excited of what could go right.

– Tony Robbins

3. Be honest about what could actually go wrong.

What is the worst thing that could happen? Seriously. If the positives aren’t keeping you on track, take a moment to make a list of what could go wrong, and a plan for how to deal with it. Thinking about the fear of failure logically (when you aren’t in the middle of a deadline) can help with the fear.

4. Create a strong information filter.

Stop letting all the negative news and information into your brain. Colleen Story calls this “doomscrolling.” She did a terrific post about earlier this year and offers amazing suggestions so you can keep your writing creativity strong. Seriously, set some Google alerts, curate some lists, and be selective about what you let into your writing brain.

5. Read books. Especially biographies.

Read books that make you happy, but also read books about people overcoming hardship. Memoirs and biographies are amazing for this. Kind of the “other people have faced this and I can face it too” mentality.

Pretty great advice, right? Seriously, read Schleien’s Medium article. I took his 5 main points and riffed with them, but I really love the language and examples he used.

Final Thoughts

This is a glorious profession we’ve chosen, but the potential for loss is high and the fear of loss is real. I encourage you be brave. Gain enough knowledge to have good craft, and then get out of the way and let your magical writing brain tell the story. Be selective in what you allow into that magical writing brain.

Most important of all, be compassionate toward that playful creative who lives inside you. If you care for your inner creative, they won’t let you down.

Do you see the Law of Loss Aversion in action in your own life? How about in your writing? Do you have recent losses or wins that came to mind while you read this? Please share them with us down in the comments!

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About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

Top Photo from Depositphotos by Vadim Vasenin

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