If we were to make a bet on the outcome of a coin toss: heads; I pay you $120, tails; you pay me $100, would you take the bet? Most likely, your answer is no, even though the expected value of the gamble is positive. Most people want to be paid $150–or even $200 for tails–to even consider it! Originally identified by Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, loss aversion refers to how the pain of losing is more powerful than the joy of gaining. Quite simply, we hate losing more than we like winning.
Loss aversion applies in domains outside of coin flips, like in our own outdoor adventures. When we reach a finish line, our motivation to exceed the original goal and keep going drastically falls or even disappears, but before that point, it seems like nothing could make us quit. It doesn’t take long to realize how widespread and compelling loss aversion is in our adventures, whether we are seeking a summit, trying to set a new PR, or riding a bicycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles, an adventure that my friend Sam and I undertook this past December.
For me, loss aversion is quite powerful. So much so, that I have found that this motivation to avoid losing has led to moments where I have experienced the most self-induced pain and experiences that would typically be considered embarrassing – like the first day of our ride from SF to LA.
One would think that before embarking on one’s first multi-day bikepacking trip, the participant would make sure that the packs fit his/her bicycle (you know, like how one shouldn’t buy a new pair of running shoes before running his/her first marathon the next day). Unfortunately, that person wasn’t me. When we arrived in San Francisco the night before our 6 a.m. day-one departure, I decided that it was time to test out my panniers on my bicycle for the first time. The most efficient setup had my tent (Tiger Wall UL2), sleeping bag (Flume UL 30), and sleeping pad (Q-Core SLX) strapped to the top of the rack, and the remaining gear stuffed tightly into two pannier bags. As I leaned the bike back and forth in the living room of our friend’s two-bedroom apartment, I noticed that the bags tended to wobble dangerously close to the spokes on my back wheel. With limited options at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I decided to pay a visit to the apartment complex’s garbage room, where I hoped to find materials to remedy this foolish mistake. I found a few size D batteries, which I fashioned to the sides of the pannier rack with electrical tape so the bags would have a larger margin of space from the wheel. The wider the rack, the further the panniers would lie from the wheel.
Approximately 10 hours later – about 2 hours into our first day – my makeshift rack broke for the first time, allowing a corner of the saddle bag to plummet directly into the spokes of my back wheel while riding down a hill at about 25 miles per hour. The wheel froze in place, sending me into a skid where I fortunately stayed upright. That was the beginning of a mentally exhausting day; I rode my bicycle in a state of paranoia, constantly wondering about the next time I would hear the awful sound of the canvas bag entering my carbon spokes.
It happened frequently. Any bump too large or turn too tight would send the bags into, at best, a violent wobble that brushed the spokes, at worst, the aforementioned collapsed rack-induced skid. Stopping at a bicycle shop would have provided the appropriate supplies, but on Christmas Day, the only stores that were open for the kind of business I needed were garbage cans. Throughout the day, eventually I visited so many dumpsters that I was able to collect enough cardboard and plastic for the ultimate design improvement – or, at this point, I’d call it a new invention.
I would have never chosen to subject myself to day-one’s circuit of unexpected back-wheel skidding and dumpster diving, but the feeling of finally discovering the solution to my original problem was far better than if the problem had never existed in the first place. In the field of human judgement and decision-making, loss aversion is considered irrational, a mistake where people misjudge probabilities and payoffs. Yet, in our outdoor adventures, loss aversion can motivate us to achieve more than we think. These are opportunities to learn about yourself and what you are capable of, whether it’s pushing yourself a little harder to achieve your PR or using various items from San Francisco garbage cans to ultimately help you ride your bike to Los Angeles.
Ben Schenck is the host of MtnMeister, the podcast that explores the minds of those who explore.