The attention–aversion gap: how allocation of attention relates to loss aversion

Abstract

Loss aversion is often assumed to be a basic and far-reaching psychological regularity in behavior. Yet empirical evidence is accumulating to challenge the assumption of widespread loss aversion in choice. We suggest that a key reason for the apparently elusive nature of loss aversion may be that its manifestation in choice is state-dependent and distinct from a more state-independent principle of heightened attention to losses relative to gains. Using data from process-tracing studies, we show that people invest more attentional resources when evaluating losses than when evaluating gains, even when their choices do not reflect loss aversion. Our evidence converges with previous findings on how losses influence exploratory search as well as physiological, hormonal, and neural responses. Increased attention to losses relative to gains seems to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for loss aversion in choice.