- “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
- “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”
There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.
You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.
The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.
Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.
You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.
A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?
There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.
“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”
“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.
Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.
Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”
You’re afraid of being embarrassed.
You’re afraid of the anxiety.
You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.
By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.
After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.
I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”
Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.
I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?
I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.
Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?
The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?
What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.
And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”
I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.
We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.
That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”