Psychology of Social Connection

I had a funny title in mind, but I lost it

November 21st, 2020 · 5 Comments

Loss by Patrick Adolphus

It was no surprise last year when Post Malone’s single “Goodbyes” hit #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Besides the satisfying melody and those coveted vocals, the relatable lyrics of the song spoke to a lot of us. As a matter of fact, there is a long history of such songs like *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” and Clay Walker’s “Like We Never Said Goodbye” reaching commercial success, disproportionate success. After all, break ups are not all that common of an occurrence relative to all of the other things going on in our lives, so why is it that they are so well represented in pop culture? If you think about it, more relationships are formed than ended since people need to start them in order for them to end in the first place. Not to mention, not all relationships end (until death does us part), so why are there not as many songs about finding yourself in a new relationship? Why are we so preoccupied with the loss of relationships?

The answer may lie in a couple of biases we have. If I offered you a wager in which you could win $100 or lose $100, you probably would not take me up on it. This is because people are loss aversive, i.e. “losses loom larger than gains.” In objective terms, you are either winning or losing the same amount, but subjectively there is more pain associated with losing than pleasure associated with winning (Brenner, et al, 2007). This could translate to a few things. First of all, you could win something or lose something, but losing is way worse, so that may be why song writers are more apt to write songs about losing a relationship than gaining one since it is the more emotionally salient event. Second of all, this may be part of the reason why most people do not want to risk losing their relationship in pursuit of another and focus on holding on instead of forgetting the old and chasing the new.

Now, imagine I gave you either a chocolate bar or a mug, but then I offered to trade items with you. Chances are you would not accept the deal. If we held no bias with respect to the items, we would expect a 50% chance of this happening, but, in reality, the odds are actually 9 to 1. This could be chocked up to what is known as the “endowment effect.” There is not much inherently better about either item. You just happen to already possess one. People prefer to hold on to what they already have (Brenner, et al, 2007), which makes it ever more painful when they have to give it up. If you have a relationship, more likely than not, you want to hold on to it, so when it is taken away from you, the loss is going to hurt. The reason might be as simple as the relationship being the status quo.

Obviously, we are emotional social creatures even though the economists among us may not want to admit it, but the first step to solving a problem is understanding the problem and the emotions that come with it, so it is important to keep these biases in mind when facing the loss of a relationship. It is important to determine whether a relationship is actually worth pursuing. We get caught in emotional storms where the winds may sound like a resounding “YES!!”, but the honest answer is often “no, I am falling prey to my biases.” Unfortunately, the more involved your relationship was, the harder it will be to weather this storm. There is a positive correlation between distress and how much of your self-concept is defined by the relationship (Smith & Cohen, 1993).

When you recognize that the loss of a particular relationship is not necessarily as bad as it feels or maybe even a good thing, you can work on coping with the loss instead of clenching so hard. If you find yourself reeling from a breakup, you should consider keeping a journal or diary to express how you are feeling about the separation. One study recruited undergrads who had recently experienced a breakup in which the experimental group was tasked with writing expressively about their breakup, whereas the control group was tasked with writing about an impersonal topic in a non-emotional manner. The control group was found to not only have higher levels of depressive symptoms like fatigue and tension, but also symptoms of upper respiratory illness (suggesting how important social connections are for our physical wellbeing!). Such symptoms were not found in the experimental group and they also reported lower levels of intrusive thoughts and avoidance (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002).

For all those hopeless romantics out there not ready to give up and willing to fight until the very end, rest assured that this is also the best way forward for you. The experimental group had a higher likelihood of reuniting with their exes (Lepore & Greenberg, 2002).

This tried and trusted method also reaches far beyond the confines of romantic relationships. Keeping a diary/journal can help deal with all sorts of traumas ranging from the death of a classmate (Margola, et al, 2010) to the loss of a job (Spera, Buherfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994). Marcus Aurelius endorsed it two thousand years ago when he wrote his Meditations and I endorse it now when you decide to write your very own meditations!

 

References

Brenner, L., Rottenstreich, Y., Sood, S., & Bilgin, B. (2007). On the psychology of loss aversion: Possession, valence, and reversals of the endowment effect. Journal of Consumer Research34(3), 369-376.

Lepore, S. J., & Greenberg, M. A. (2002). Mending broken hearts: Effects of expressive writing on mood, cognitive processing, social adjustment and health following a relationship breakup. Psychology and Health17(5), 547-560.

Margola, D., Facchin, F., Molgora, S., & Revenson, T. A. (2010). Cognitive and emotional processing through writing among adolescents who experienced the death of a classmate. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy2(3), 250.

Smith, H. S., & Cohen, L. H. (1993). Self-complexity and reactions to a relationship breakup. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology12(4), 367-384.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of management journal37(3), 722-733.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Christi // Nov 21st 2020 at 6:37 pm

    Loss week was really interesting because originally, when I thought of loss in a relationship context, I thought about people who have past or moved away. Physical changes and circumstances that we have no control over. But, during loss week, it is actually something that we do have a lot of control over with relationships and try to avoid. Even declines in closeness with a good friend can often feel like a lose. As an econ major, I really appreciated the material representations of loss – when talking about goods and things, it is really easy to see how loss averse we are. It is really cool that it translates to people too. Also, the intro is really cool with the songs since it shows that loss and goodbyes are something that everyone can resonate with.

    – Christi

  • Anonymous // Nov 23rd 2020 at 9:39 pm

    Hey Patrick,

    I found it super interesting to think about the chocolate bar and mug situation. Neither item is really any better, but since you already have one of them, you don’t want to lose it. This is such a relatable experience that I go through often. I think sometimes it’s hard to give up something even if it’s not a prized possession because I don’t want to lose what I already have. I mean, what if I need what I give away some day!

    You definitely gave some great relationship advice and I’m sure everyone could use this help coping with loss. I have never been able to get into a journaling, but I probably should keep trying!

    —Camerin

  • Rachel R // Nov 24th 2020 at 5:38 am

    Hey Patrick!

    First off, loved the title 🙂 I especially appreciated how your post combined both the more emotional and social components of loss that we’ve seen throughout our class with the more economic/ material understanding of loss through the biases we can have. I definitely can find myself getting caught heavily in these “emotional storms” when experiencing my relationships (and especially relationship loss), so taking the time to stop and think about these other factors that may be influencing my decisions and reactions is a helpful way of framing how I approach loss. Your ending section about keeping a journal was a great way of summing up one possibility for reflecting on these feelings and recognizing these biases, and I would definitely want to try and make that a more regular part of my routine!

    – Rachel

  • gracerotondo // Nov 24th 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Hi Patrick – interesting post!

    I never really thought about how the loss of relationships is overrepresented in media compared to the forming of relationships. I wonder if this has more to do with dramatic effect than anything else…

    Your point about our loss aversiveness is so relatable. I never bet on anything because event the thought of losing money is much greater than the potential gain. I would rather just keep what I have and work to earn money with the monetary gain being guaranteed. I think this idea of guarantee is important when we consider loss.

    When evaluating whether you should end a relationship because you don’t feel you are getting out of it what you’re putting into it, the thought of ending it is scary. It’s scary because as you said, Patrick, the void that this loss will create will seem great – at least at first – leaving people to oftentimes just suck it up and try to overlook their feelings. Even though ending a harmful relationship may feel daunting and the anticipated loss of the relationship seems great, it is important to remember that time will pass and this feeling of loss will too.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  • Julie // Nov 27th 2020 at 7:03 pm

    Hey P!

    Super well written post. It was both informative and held my attention. I loved how you started off talking about songs on loss; this is something I’ve noticed but never really thought deeply about, and the whole post flows well from this initial hook.

    I loved the section on the endowment effect. Once we own something, it so easily becomes special to us, simply because it is something that belongs to us. Maybe it’s because what we have becomes comfortable to us, and the comfort zone is just inherently attractive, which is why it’s so difficult to make decisions that push us outside of that zone. This applies to people as well; being with someone a lot allows them to become comfortable to us, even if they’re not actually all that great for us.

    I also appreciated your metaphor about getting caught in and weathering the storm, the emotional storm, that may cloud our judgment when it comes to relationships.

    Finally, your tip about keeping a diary/journal is so important. We hear it all the time, but I feel like few people actually do it consistently. I think some people feel embarrassed about the idea of a diary, it can sound childish, but I hope we all continue to shift away from that idea as we learn how valuable writing our thoughts down can be. Hearing the evidence behind how it actually does help is so powerful.

    Overall, this was a very perceptive and illuminating post, great job!

    -jules

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