Most people are more concerned with avoiding a potential loss than achieving a potential gain. It’s an aspect of human nature that’s very underappreciated but continually comes into play in our daily lives in significant ways.
Some evolutionary psychologists speculate that we emotionally weigh negative outcomes fives times stronger than we weigh positive outcomes. Evolution is primarily driven not by striving for gains and achieving the best possible outcome but by constantly avoiding costly mistakes and averting loss. This leads to the concept of the least costly mistake.
The least costly mistake concept says that when making decisions, we put more emphasis on choosing the path with the least disastrous potential risk rather than the path with the most potential gain. To understand the least costly mistake concept, it’s necessary to consider the most costly mistake ever: death.
If all your mistake causes you to do is miss an opportunity to gain ground, there may always be a future opportunity to gain ground. It sucks, but you may get a second chance later, and you didn’t lose much, if anything. But if your mistake is costly, not only are you worse off before, but you’ve impaired your future opportunities to gain ground. And if you make the most costly mistake, death, you’ve closed off all second chances. Permanently.
For these reasons, being biased toward averting losses rather than maximizing gains makes sense. Throughout evolution, people strongly biased toward maximizing gains over averting losses died more and as a result got permanently weeded out of the gene pool. Thus we’re all descended from the remaining people, the ones biased toward loss aversion. And we inherited their loss aversion tendencies.
This is why the pain a person feels from losing $100 will far outweigh the joy they feel from gaining $100. This is why the heartbreak of losing a mediocre relationship far outweighs the joy of gaining one. This is why people fight harder to keep from losing a decent relationship but don’t fight as hard to improve a decent relationship into a great one. Human nature makes avoiding steps backwards much more crucial to people than maximizing steps forward.
As with anything, both traits taken to their extremes are detrimental. However, I think you’re more likely to find the avoidance of potential losses to be the trait taken to extremes.
Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman is an excellent pop psychology that talks about loss aversion and other logical traps people fall into.