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IMG_9722Why do we feel so devastated after losing someone we love when we generally felt pretty good before we ever met them? That person lives in us; at least a mental model does and that includes what they looked like, how they talked, their habits, their mannerisms, their smell, what they liked and disliked, specific interactions and conversations, shared memories. It’s really little wonder people believe in ghosts. I often dream about my grandparents, for example, decades after they died.

Their life is gone and that is a huge sadness but there is also an impact on you and me. We will have to do things differently, say things differently, recall things that they used to recall. In some cases, of course, it means we may now have sole responsibility for raising children or running a business.

Here’s another strange case. People pretty much exactly like us physically used to live, mate, reproduce, bring up kids, find food, find shelter, find water, avoid enemies, make friends, grow old, share stories, and eventually die. But they did all that without cellphones. They did that without television. They did that without oil or wheels or electricity. They did not miss these conveniences because, for them, they were not even conceptions. But if all those things are taken away from us, we would feel deprived.


Let’s get more specific. The video games of today are fantastic. But, let’s rewind recent history. I thought the original adventure game was completely awesome. We would type in two word commands and the 80 character by 40 line display would flash up green word descriptions of places and events. The descriptions were well-written and there were clever puzzles to be solved. But how many gamers of today would be able to enjoy the original Adventure game as we did in the 1980’s? Maybe all of them? But probably not.

Every time I go to youtube, they ask whether I want an “ad-free” experience which I can “try” for free! Of course, after having the ad-free experience, going back will be relatively difficult whereas right now, I don’t even notice them. I totally get why people eventually become unable to “hear” the other side of a political argument. Instead, they simply tune it out. Indeed, it is often the same approach and probably often the same people who end up trying to “sell” a political candidate as those trying to “sell” a new brand of deodorant. There is much that needs to be fixed about our current political system. But if we replace it with corporate rule, I think we will miss the “good old days” very much indeed.

Do you recall the oddly delicious pain of a loose tooth? To wiggle that tooth caused pain. At least that’s the way I remember it. Yet, I loved to cause myself that hurt. It didn’t hurt much. And, I could control the pain pretty precisely by how hard I pushed with my tongue. Of course, I knew that eventually the tooth would come out and be replaced by a newer stronger tooth. I also knew that placing my tooth under the pillow would cause my parents to supply cash; typically, a dime. That was not an inconsiderable sum. Yet, neither better teeth nor financial gain provided my main motivation for wiggling my tooth. Simply having a small pain that I could control seemed a wonderful thing.

In fact, once the tooth eventually fell out and the newer, bigger, stronger tooth began to grow in, I missed the old, weak, loose tooth, not because of the tooth, per se, but because I had lost that controllable pain. The desire to have something is rather strange, particularly because it is both fundamental to the “rational man” of classical economics and at the same time, extremely irrational. 

People who lived a hundred years ago did not desire iPhones, television, or central air conditioning. They might have thought, e.g., “I am frigging frying – need a cooler breeze.” But they wouldn’t exactly desire air conditioning. Later, some people actually could afford air conditioning and others could not. The “could not’s” would feel the lack of air conditioning much more than their ancestors. There is one group of people who would feel the sting even more: those who had air conditioning and subsequently lost it.


In fact, once we have something for awhile, we not only feel the loss of that thing intently; we feel we deserve whatever it is we lost. After all, it is ours! (Even if we just stole that very same thing from someone else a few weeks ago!).

It isn’t just things and people that people feel a loss for. They feel a loss for places, situations, abilities, and even abstractions such as progress toward a goal. And that brings me to my dissertation.

I gave people a fairly simple river-crossing problem. The problem begins with three hobbits and three orcs on one side of the river. There is a small boat that can hold one or two creatures. The goal is to figure out how to get all six creatures to the other side of the river. They can’t swim, or wade, or leap, or build a bridge. The only way is to use the boat. At least one creature must be in the boat at all times. The orcs can never outnumber the hobbits on either side of the river. If that happens, the orcs will gang up and eat the hobbits. It’s a little tricky, but it is possible to get all six critters from one side of the river to the other by ferrying it back and forth.

Some people were first given “half” of the problem; that is to say, they were given a starting position that was half-way through the entire solution. After they solved that, they were given the whole problem. Many of them wanted to give up the problem as impossible, precisely at the spot from which they had just solved the half-problem no more than 20 minutes earlier. Apparently, the position was psychologically different if they were plunked into the spot as opposed to getting to that same spot through their efforts. People who started the problem from the beginning felt as though they had been making “progress” toward the goal. At one point, they had to appear to move away from the goal. It may have seemed to them, in other words, as though they were losing the progress that they had already made. On the other hand, when they started at that same mid-way point, they didn’t feel any “loss” and had an easy time solving the problem from that point forward.

This effect is related to a major deviation people have from acting in accordance with the economic fantasy of the “rational person” when it comes to decision making. Consider investments in stocks. Let’s say that  at one point, you buy 100 shares of IBM stock at $50/share and at another point, I buy 100 shares at $150/share.  Now, the current price is $100/share. You and I have the same exact information about IBM, the tech industry, the economy and so on. Rationally, we should make the same decision (leaving aside tax consequences and whether we need the money desperately). People do not typically view these situations as similar. If you bought the stock at $50/share, you feel as though selling it at $100/share is a great deal. You’ll make a cool $5000! Sounds great. On the other hand, what would you counsel me to do? You might well say that I should definitely not sell right now because I would lose $5000. Actually, the stock certificates have no memory. They have no idea what either of us paid for them and are worth identical amounts.


I will not try to “prove” this to you. For now, it’s enough to realize that people feel quite different about the two situations. People are very motivated to avoid a loss. Indeed, even the pain of a wiggling tooth can be something not to lose. In Lord Byron’s poem about the Prisoner of Chillon, the long-time prisoner is finally set free, but feels the loss of the prison.

The longish poem ends with these lines.

“My very chains and I grew friends,

So much a long communion tends

To make us what we are:—even I

Regained my freedom with a sigh.”

Returning veterans, despite the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions they’ve been in, often feel as though they have lost something vital when returning to civilian life; e.g., a clarity of what is important, a clear mission, and being part of something bigger than themselves. In fact, the sense of loss can be so overwhelming that more US veterans have committed suicide after returning from duty in the middle east than have been killed in combat.

When people lose a limb, whether through war, an industrial accident or in some other way, they often have “phantom limb” feelings. They can feel sensation and even pain in the limb that is no longer there. Is this similar to what happens when we lose a loved one and then see them in a crowded room? Our mental models of what is true about the world, about others, and even about ourselves are always in danger of being out of touch with what is really happening now. As your kids grow up, your mental model of their capability is always behind the times because it is based on your past experience with them. People who are dangerously thin can still be concerned about being overweight. People no longer capable of driving safely because of their vision or memory may resist the suggestion to stop driving because of a lifetime of experience driving safely. To a computer program, loss and gain may appear symmetrical but they don’t appear that way to a person.


My three older kids are a year apart in age. When they were young, there was one large shared toy box in the family room. On more than one occasion, one of the kids dug through a random pile Lincoln logs, Lego pieces, tinker toys, monopoly money and pulled out, say, a tiny, green, broken toy car. The car, so far as I could determine, had no QRC code, embedded electronics, or wireless connection. Yet, within seconds, one of the other kids would appear from the other end of the house where they had been doing homework or reading and — Voila! — they would appear and announce: “Hey, that’s my car. I’ve been looking for that! Where did you find it? Anyway, give it here.” Seriously? They hadn’t seen the car for two years, perhaps. They had completely “gotten over” the loss. Now, however, they were reminded of their loss as well as presented with an opportunity to recover that loss. You might think they would be much more inclined to share this toy than they would a new toy. You might think that if you didn’t have multiple kids of your own, that is. No. This “prodigal toy” was welcomed back with open arms and more than a little suspicion and hostility toward the sibling that discovered it.

Another controversial and related phenomenon is the notion of constructed memories or confabulations. Here is a simple example from the psych lab. You give a person the following list of words to recall:

Peach, Pear, Brandy, Tree, Plum, Orange, Pie, Book, Seed, Dish, Grove, Orchard,  Plate, Cinnamon, Zest, Peel, Cobbler, Supple, Couple, Farm, Sample, Computer. 

No, a few hours later, you ask them to recall the list. Almost everyone will remember part of the list. A few people might recall all of them. But more people typically recall “Apple” than any of the items actually on the list! Of course, advertisers are not unaware of this phenomenon and neither are political consultants. They can easily get you to imagine that the candidate said something when they actually did not say it. But the words chosen got you to think it and recall it. But wait. It gets even better. The inclusion of “Apple” in your memory is based on associations that are widely shared in the mental structure of most American native speakers of English. The same technique can be used to arouse words, thoughts, and images selectively in specific segments of the population.

Consider the following list:

Sharapova, Halep, Muguruza, Federer, Del Potro, Mcenroe, Navratilova, King, Evert, Keys, Vandeweghe, Tilden, Laver, Andersen, Radwanska, Gore, Nader, Roddick, Connors, Borg, Ulna, Radius, Radium. 

If I listen to that list and try to recall it a few hours later, I am very likely to include “Nadal” in the list. If you’ve never watched or followed professional tennis, you’re very unlikely to include “Nadal.” For you, the list is pretty random and has little association with “Rafa Nadal.” But for me, these are all strongly associated.


Ponder that for a moment. Advertisers and political consultants can send an implicit message that only “works” for certain groups of people. When it comes to political consultants, one of their favorites is to convince you that you have in fact, lost something which you never had. Because it is something you come to believe you lost, you want it quite dearly.

A case in point is the mythical perfect America of the past. If you have been reading this blog before, you know that I love many of the things that actually used to be true in America. For instance, when I used to pull into a “Service Station”, I actually got service! Someone came and cleaned the window and checked the oil as well as pumped the gas. Now, when I pull into a “Gas Station” that does not happen. That really is a loss although if we did have that service today, gas might be $10 a gallon instead of $3. And, there are many other things that are gone that really did exist. But many people have also been convinced that there were a lot of things that they have lost, even those things that never actually existed. 

The Founding Fathers, for example, were not all Protestants. And, even among those who were Protestant, they did not all agree on the same Biblical interpretations. And, I am extremely confident that very few of the Founding Fathers interpreted the Bible in precisely the way that your particular minister does. There was never a time when workers didn’t complain, had no unions, and yet were treated fairly. There was never a time when every politician was above corruption. There was never a time when children were never molested, or when the press did not sensationalize, or when everyone “got along.” That is not an America that has since been lost. That is an America that never existed.


Legends of a “lost land”, Atlantis, Eden, Shangri-La, and the “noble savage” are not unique to modern America, of course. Many politicians in many eras and many different lands have tried to gain power by making people feel that they have “lost” something that never actually existed! It’s a pretty cool trick when you think about it. If done with artistry and tact, and especially if done with billions of dollars of advertising, they can not only make you think you heard the word “apple”; they can make you remember the taste of an imaginary apple!


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Poems of Loss