The Negative Utility of Losses

At present I’m privileged to be working with twenty-eight hard working people who just completed a year-long teaching internship. Beginning teachers typically fall into a common psychological trap. Hell, what am I saying, I still do it too and I’ve been at it for a quarter century. All but the most callused teachers fall into the trap of letting a few negative student encounters shade one’s thinking about an entire class or course.

For example, when I think about my sixteen writing students last semester, I know at least twelve learned a lot, improved, and had a positive experience. One to four, probably not so much. One of my current students is the mother of one of my first year spring semester writing students. She confided in me that her daughter said, “He doesn’t like the way I write.” Insert knife. Twist. I really work hard to help students develop more positive attitudes towards writing and to develop self confidence so that really bummed me out. Then my thought process becomes, “Nevermind loser that the majority of the class had a positive experience, a few didn’t.”

Why is it that you can have a neutral or positive working relationship with nine students, but the negative one with the tenth takes away from the entire teaching and learning experience?

I was wondering this while reading The Investor’s Manifesto by William Bernstein, page 108 specifically. He writes, “It makes little sense that we should care about a bad day or a bad year in the stock market if it provides us with good long-term returns. But because of the importance of our limbic systems, we care—very, very much—about short term losses. We cannot help it: That is the way we are hardwired. Behavioral studies show that, in emotional terms, a loss of $1 approximately offsets a gain of $2; in the unlovely language of economics, the negative utility of losses is twice that of the positive utility of gains.”

Or five or ten times that depending on how negative the teacher-student relationship.

Conceptual convergence. I love the phrase “the negative utility of losses” because it helps me better describe the abstract psychological (or actually biological) phenomenon that plagues most teachers.

My natural tendency would be to strategize on how to combat negative utility of loss thinking, but if it’s biological is it inevitable? Is resistance futile?

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