Loss Aversion and Changing Lanes

In the past couple of blogs I’ve been looking at the impact of cognitive bias on decision making in the Volvo Ocean Race . But you don’t have to tackle the Atlantic or the Southern Ocean to see the impact of these biases in our thinking. I got caught out by a classic cognitive bias this morning in the inevitable traffic jam that is the M27 on the daily commute.

We all know how this works. All three lanes of the motorway are slow for no visible reason, except that there are just too many people and cars for the available tarmac. Suck it up… except that the lane next to you seems to be that little bit less slow than the one you are in. So you change lanes. Oh dear. The new lane grinds to a halt, the old lane almost immediately accelerates and you lose.

So much, so familiar – despite knowing about the 1999 study by Robert Tibshirani and Donald Redelmeier that established that switching lanes rarely if ever gets you there faster, I still do it. Never mind the fact that it’s dangerous, and slows down the overall movement of traffic on the road (i.e. it screws everyone else which actually makes it a Prisoner’s Dilemma decision, but we’ll come back to that some either time – or read The Defector).

One of the reasons is loss aversion. We looked at this in my last blog – the idea established by psychologists that our dislike of losing something is about twice as strong as the love of gaining it.

This concept is often demonstrated with a simple bet — I’ll toss a coin, if it’s ‘tails’ you pay me £10. The question is, how much would I have to offer you for a ‘heads’, to get you to take the bet? When it’s tested on large groups the answer is usually around £20. People need to have a chance to win double what they could lose to take a 50/50 bet like a coin toss.

So every time you see a car go past you in a traffic jam, the sense of loss is twice as painful as the gain you feel that you have made when your lane is quicker, and you go past a car. In fact, if loss aversion is working as the psychologists predict, you could be gaining at a 2:1 rate in that queue and still feel like you’re getting hammered.

Think about it the next time you feel compelled to changes lanes – it’s not quicker, its dangerous, and it slows everyone down. It’s just making you feel bad.

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