Challenging the Biggest Idea in Behavioral Finance

In a recent article for Bloomberg, columnist Barry Ritholtz rebuts the notion presented in a recent paper that the theory of loss aversion is a fallacy.

The idea that people place more weight on avoiding losses than accumulating gains–a central theory in behavioral finance—was challenged by a recent study that suggests “cognitive bias via loss avoidance doesn’t exist, and messages framed in terms of losses are not more persuasive than those framed in terms of gains.”

But Ritholtz argues, “That is not what most of the studies on the subject have found to be the case; nor does it square with my personal experiences in dealing with any investor who has suffered losses.” He explains that losses can feel permanent, while gains can be perceived as more ephemeral (and therefore easy to spend).

He underscores his position from an evolutionary perspective, writing, “the biological penalties for losses are existential threats to an individual’s or a specie’s survival; the upside of gains are modest—you live to hunt (or avoid being hunted) another day.”

Ritholtz points out that the study’s authors may have conflated a variety of cognitive biases and heuristics with loss aversion, concluding, “The mere fact that gain-seeking behavior exists hardly eliminates loss aversion as a phenomenon.”