Sensitivity to Loss
How many times do you hear the story of the ‘life-changing’ moment that lead to a cascade of behavioural changes culminating in a completely reformed individual?
All too often, I bet.
It could be the overweight dad who has their first heart attack, and decides to make lifestyle changes.
It could be the mother who accidentally loses a limb due to type two diabetes.
Or, it could be the high school athlete who suffers a career-threatening injury.
All of these personas might actually say this predictably, recycled phrase.
‘I really should’ve started sooner.’ This is a statement pertaining to the uptake of exercise, or the improvement of diet, or the consultant of a rehabilitation professional. And the sad truth is, yes, they should’ve started sooner.
And yet, this never ending cycle of behaviours that lead to utterances of ‘I really should’ve started sooner’ continues. Loved ones of the affected will make highly emotional pleas to their friends to adopt life changing behaviours because ‘it could happen to you.’ And that’s also true, it could. However, very few will act out this advice. In fact, many of those providing this advice won’t act it out either.
Why is that? For decades we have known that lack of physical activity as well as unhealthy diets are potent risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Not only are we aware of this, but most of us have only a few degrees of separation that turn this statistic into reality. And yet, year after year, we will hear the sad story of a loved one that passes away.
By no means the rationalisation, but likely a part of such behaviour, is that human beings are more sensitive to loss than they are to gain. Perhaps this has its’ roots in our evolutionary biology, however for the same risk, we are more unwilling to lose than we are to gain. Allow me to illustrate this in an example.
In the classic game of heads or tails, if heads causes you to win $5 and tails causes you to lose $5, most people would not play. Assuming the odds are 50%, we are more averse to losing $5 than we are excited about gaining $5. How does this psychology play out in daily health behaviours?
Only when we feel that we have lost something or about to lose do we take an active approach to change. When doctors tell an uncompliant patient that they’re about to lose their foot to diabetes, they become compliant. Or when a spouse tells their partner that they’re about to lose their relationship because their needs aren’t being met, only then does active change occur.
As it pertains to the body, unfortunately when permanent loss is about to occur, there are already permanent changes to the body that they’ll have to live with for the rest of their life. For example, if dietary changes need to change to mitigate a heart attack, that heart’s arteries have already calcified to the point where careful consideration of food will occur for the rest of life.
It is enormously frustrating for us coaches to watch clients cycle through behaviours that won’t be immediately detrimental, but will in the next 10 to 20 years of life. So what can we do? I have not yet been able to answer this question accurately, but we must be patient. People who aren’t willing or ready to change, simply won’t change.
So our role is simply to act as the ideals they we’d like to see (or try our best to). Be a positive force in their life and encourage healthy behaviour (without criticising them). They will turn up to your sessions drunk or bloated from their latest round of unhelpful healthy behaviours, and maybe just one of those times, just one, they’ll tell you ‘I think I’m ready to change.’