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  • Writer's pictureDan Squires

Why Success Often Depends on Locking In Loss

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Dr. Dan
Dr. Dan's Monthly Muse

Diet, Predators & Traffic, Oh My!

While it's generally understood that securing all manner of gains usually requires at least a little pain, it's less obvious just how reflexive and troublesome our instincts to avoid pain in it's more general form of "loss" can be. There's a good reason we've evolved to be so maladaptively adept at this. Just as our evolved dietary preferences for fat, salt, and sugar once helped us live longer, so to did our instincts to avoid all forms of danger, pain and loss. Ironically, many habits once favored by natural selection continue to evolve by virtue of success into competitive disadvantages. In the present case, just as our outdated dietary preferences now serve to impair quality of life and even shorten it at times, so too does our universal aversion to loss.

Fast forward a few millennia, where language, abstract thought, law and order, technology, industrial agriculture, medicine, and other societal advances have altered the playing field, and the concept of loss becomes more stratified and nuanced. For example, if I'm about to be attacked by a predator versus stuck in traffic, there's an obvious difference in terms of threat to survival, yet both circumstances tend to evoke the same instinctive response - avoidance of loss. While evading a predator is almost always a good idea, attempting to evade traffic may end up getting you injured or even killed (an estimated 66% of traffic fatalities are attributed to aggressive driving).

Impatience associated with unnecessary loss avoidance almost always seems to cost more than patience ever would have. Now, don't take my knowledge of this fact to suggest I've somehow mastered this - far from it. To the contrary, my wife summed it up pretty well a during one of my "growth opportunities" when she stated, "What's wrong with you? You're a psychologist for God's sake."

While being attacked by a predator or stuck in traffic are certainly different in important ways, they do share one feature - they both represent the possibility of actual loss (i.e., loss of safety in the predator sense, and loss of time in the traffic case). Not all loss represents actual loss, however. Let's take a closer look at the types of loss, and how they differ.

Types of Loss

Productive Loss. Some losses can actually be quite productive when it comes to achieving eventual success (a bad relationship ending, losing or quitting a toxic job, and not always getting everything you want, to name a few). Of course, even productive losses don't always seem that way when they're happening, which can make it difficult to feel productive at the time. Nonetheless, productive losses come with a potential to ultimately free us from negative encumbrances and afford us the possibility of better possibilities going forward.

Destructive Loss. In contrast, destructive losses are just that. They take something desirable away from us in a way that reduces quality of life (less peace of mind or security, loss of productive relationships or jobs, wasted time, physical harm, and even death, for example). Put simply, destructive loss is universally "bad" in the evolutionary sense and, as noted above, evolution has selected us to be especially sensitive to it. In fact, research has shown that we are roughly twice as likely to avoid loss as we are to pursue gain. While this makes sense when it comes to vital aspects of survival, it is far less productive in terms of judgment and decision making as the severity and type of loss we're faced with goes down.

No matter which type of loss we may be facing, the good news is that the likelihood of success (i.e., productive accommodation and/or resolution) ultimately depends more on the type of response than on the type of loss.

Types of Response

Productive Response. A productive response usually has a few distinct features. First, productive responses almost always reflect an acceptance of responsibility for one's circumstances (fair or not...) and a focus on personal responsibility for a given behavioral response. This single feature predicts success despite loss more than any other thing, and is often referred to as having an "internal locus of control". Think about the people in your life you have respected the most. Chances are they're good at this. Second, productive responses focus on solving problems, not creating new ones. Third, productive responses also include reflection and evaluation that allow us to learn from our experiences. In some cases, there may be little, if anything, we can do differently in the future to avoid a certain type of loss (e.g., car crash where we are not at fault). These are always the hardest to accept. In others (most, thankfully), there are specific decisions or actions that we ourselves contributed to the loss that can be modified.

Destructive Response. Destructive responses, on the other hand, can actually create a "real" loss when there wasn't one (e.g., self-fulfilling prophecy). Just like productive responses, they usually have distinct features in, you guessed it, the opposite direction. Destructive responses usually start with the absence, or even outright rejection, of responsibility (external locus of control) for one's behavioral response (e.g., "I can't control myself when that happens!"), and almost always include claims of unfairness or injustice of some sort. Destructive responses also have a tendency to further complicate already challenging circumstances to the point of FUBAR (one of my faves). Finally, destructive responses result in little, if any, productive learning; more often regret and lower self-esteem.


The Loss-Response Matrix provides a visual reference of the relationship between type of loss and personal response. The labels within each quadrant offer advice for how to view each scenario. The productive response categories (green) represent best case scenarios, despite there being a differential impact of loss (destructive vs. productive). The yellow quadrant represents the interaction between a productive loss, but a destructive response. Hope is warranted here as changing the response to productive can move the "loss" into the most productive quadrant. Finally, the red quadrant represents the worst case scenario of a destructive loss and response. Caution is warranted here as it's always best to avoid this quadrant whenever possible. As with the yellow quadrant, however, significant improvement can be achieved by focusing on a more productive response despite the challenge of having to "lock-in" a counterproductive loss.

Why does this matter? Well, the more time we spend on the right side of the matrix (i.e., locking-in loss), the more productive and satisfied we tend to be. It's that simple.

Understanding the Loss-Response Matrix
Loss-Response Matrix

Locking-in Loss More Efficiently and Effectively

Here are a few tips for how to apply these principles:

  1. When you first recognize that you're facing a loss (assuming it's not an immediate danger), take a moment to decide what type of loss it is. Is it possibly productive, or obviously counterproductive?

  2. Decide whether the loss is avoidable, or not.

  3. Once you have answered the first two, you must accept the loss in whatever form you feel it is inevitable. Sometimes this means taking a direct hit. Other times it means having to go out of your way to avoid or minimize it. In either case, this is where you must "Lock-in the Loss". Yep, accept it and move on. You don't have to like it. You just have to do it.

  4. Once you've locked-in a loss, make an intentional decision to accept responsibility for your behavior, with a goal to solve, not create additional problems.

  5. After you've responded and had some time to consider and reflect on both the loss and how you handled it, what are the "takeaways" regarding both, and how will you apply them next time? Share your insights with someone close to you to improve accountability.

  6. Try not to respond destructively. Ever. If, however, you do start down that road, stop yourself, apologize where necessary, and course correct as soon as possible. Take some time to reconsider the situation and your alternatives. Chances are you haven't locked-in the loss. Force yourself back to step (Tip) 1. This is a well worn path for me.

  7. Be patient with yourself. Avoiding ANY loss is a powerful instinct, and it takes practice to become more selective and productive in your responding. The good news is that you'll have plenty of opportunities for practice.

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