Is It Really How You Play the Game? No, Say Our Brains. Winning and Losing Matter – At Least If You’re the Loser

I can't count the number of times I heard, "It's not if you win or lose. It's how you play the game" when I was growing up. And how often I still hear it. Well, in some contexts, that sentiment might be true, but in others, our brains might beg to differ.  Especially, that is, if we lose.


Not just how I did, but how I did compared to you, is what matters

As highlighted by this recent study, by a team from Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and UVA, winning and losing trigger distinct thought processes in the brain. In general, our brains are trained to make relative, not absolute judgments. The point of comparison matters a great deal in almost any situation. Take this finding: happiness increases when we get a raise but someone else doesn’t (in other words, our relative income increases) but not when everyone’s income is increased. It’s not the absolute amount of money that’s the question; it’s the comparison. 

But as it turns out, that depends on which end of the spectrum you fall on. Did you win – or did you lose? If you won, you are likely going to stick to that relative comparison. But if you lost, you are likely to care more about the absolute. You don’t want to be unhappy by focusing on the relatively poor outcome. You want to increase your satisfaction by focusing on the absolute: at least I got something

When we lose, we care about the absolutes; when we win, the relatives win out

In the study, participants were given scratch-off tickets, lottery style. Each ticket had two amounts. Participants scratched off one of the two. Whatever the amount revealed, that would be the money they received for their participation. However, after they were paid, they were asked to scratch off the remaining amount. “Winners” were those who won the larger of the two available amounts, and “losers,” the ones that won the smaller of the two. 

The researchers found that, while overall, winners were happier than were losers, there was a further important difference: winners were insensitive to how much they won, but losers cared a great deal.  In other words, winners were equally happy walking away with $3 as with $7. Not so the losers. The more money they got, the happier they were. The two experiences, then, were quite different at the end of the day. Winners cared more about “playing the game” but losers cared more about the actual value of the prize.

We work to make the most of our outcome 

Why would that be the case? When we compare, we tend to make the salient, or most obvious, comparison first and most automatically.  So, imagine you win. You compare to losing. You’re satisfied. You stop comparing. You’re happy – and that happiness is independent of what (or how much, in the case of this study) you have just won. You’ve done well in a relative sense (relative to someone else, that is) and the absolute aspects (what exactly did I win?) recede into the background.

Now, imagine you lose.  You compare to winning. That’s not so satisfying. You keep searching (what could I compare to to feel better?). Now, what you’ve won (or the amount you’ve won, as the case may be) matters. If you win $10, you’ll be happier than if you won $5. 

The bottom line: losers are more sensitive to the absolute values of outcomes. Winners care about the relative outcome itself. Our satisfaction is not just based on what we get, but on what we don’t get. And if what we don’t get is relatively better than what we got, we keep looking for a way to rationalize the outcome and make it more manageable. Otherwise, regret might be a nasty side effect. 

Consider studies of the stock market that show that investors are much less happy if a stock that they did not choose even though they could have performs well. That makes no rational sense, in that they don’t actually lose any real money, and their own stocks might be performing quite nicely. Moreover, some findings suggest that the regret of not choosing a stock could sometimes be worse than losing actual money on stocks you did choose, which is even more irrational.

Irrational, perhaps, but true nevertheless – and an understandable byproduct of how our minds cope with the relative outcomes of winning and losing. So next time you tell me that it’s how I played the game that matters, stop a moment to think: did I win, or did I lose? And if I lost, please consider keeping quiet instead.

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