Losses as ecological guides: minor losses lead to maximization and not to avoidance

Cognition. 2015 Jun:139:10-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.03.001. Epub 2015 Mar 19.


Losses are commonly thought to result in a neuropsychological avoidance response. We suggest that losses also provide ecological guidance by increasing focus on the task at hand, and that this effect may override the avoidance response. This prediction was tested in a series of studies. In Study 1a we found that minor losses did not lead to an avoidance response. Instead, they guided participants to make advantageous choices (in terms of expected value) and to avoid disadvantageous choices. Moreover, losses were associated with less switching between options after the first block of exploration. In Study 1b we found that this effect was not simply a by-product of the increase in visual contrast with losses. In Study 1c we found that the effect of losses did not emerge when alternatives did not differ in their expected value but only in their risk level. In Study 2 we investigated the autonomic arousal dynamics associated with this behavioral pattern via pupillometric responses. The results showed increased pupil diameter following losses compared to gains. However, this increase was not associated with a tendency to avoid losses, but rather with a tendency to select more advantageously. These findings suggest that attention and reasoning processes induced by losses can out-weigh the influence of affective processes leading to avoidance.

Keywords: Attention; Loss attention; Loss aversion; Performance.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pupil / physiology