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Why We Hate The Feeling of Failure and How It Affects Us

Our fear of losing may control us more than we think. Learn the psychology behind our aversion to failure.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Jul 20, 2023 1:00 PM
Fear of failure, anxiety or stressed, negative emotion in career development, afraid of progress forward or middle life crisis concept


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“Doubt has killed more dreams than failure ever will,” is a popular Suzy Kassem quote, especially for those who are too afraid of failing at something that they don’t even bother to try. Think of all the songs and books that were never written or the athletes and artists that never made it because they were too afraid of failing. 

Or, imagine the pressure professional athletes or musicians feel to perform well enough that the audience isn’t disappointed in them. 

This doubt or fear is what psychologists call loss aversion, and while it was a widely used concept in marketing and advertising, researchers are now beginning to understand that it plays a bigger role in our day-to-day lives.  

What Is Loss Aversion?

Loss aversion is the idea that a potential loss has greater weight in a person’s mind than the possible gain. People seek to avoid failure and the negative feelings they expect will come from such a loss.

Loss aversion has long been used to study consumer psychology. Marketers want to understand what consumers view as a win, so sales or pricing can make that purchase indeed feel like a gain. Marketers also want to understand the emotions surrounding loss so they can word advertisements in a way that prompts consumers to feel they need to buy a product to avoid negative feelings.

More recently, social scientists have turned their attention to how loss aversion can hinder people from performing in their daily lives. Research has found this fear of failure drives people to stop pursuing their passions.

Read more: The Spiral of Thinking About Thinking, or Metacognition

Why Do We Hate to Lose?

Only in the last two decades did researchers take the concept of loss aversion past the study of consumer decisions and apply it to how people view themselves and their own capabilities.

Sports and athletic performance was one of the first areas of focus, and researchers sought to understand the fear of failure among athletes and why the idea of losing might make a person struggle to perform, want to quit a team or not even try out.

A May 2023 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at how adult athletes (ages 18 to 55) were hindered by a fear of failure. The study found that athletes who feared failure tended to approach an athletic event and appraise it for potential losses.

Losses weren’t just related to the final numbers on the scoreboard. Rather, some athletes approached a practice or a game and saw it as a potential to perform poorly and lose standing with their coach, teammates or fellow athletes. The loss of standing was seen as humiliating and something the athlete feared or wanted to avoid.

The failure-focused athletes in the study tended to share personality traits such as perfectionism and conflict avoidance. They were also more likely to suffer from burnout than athletes who didn’t have a fear of failure. Burnout can cause athletes to quit a sport they once loved.

Dreading Loss

In addition to considering loss aversion in athletics, scholars are also considering how a fear of failure impacts academics. In particular, researchers have examined how fear of failure can lead to procrastination.

In a 2015 article in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 33 studies involving more than 38,000 participants that measured the relationship between procrastination and academic performance.

Not surprisingly, procrastination was shown to decrease academic performance. However, the study found that procrastination wasn’t due to students prioritizing their social life or Netflix queue. Rather, this type of I’ll-get-to-it-later mentality was a loss aversion strategy. When a student didn’t feel confident or competent in completing a task, whether it was writing an essay or studying for an exam, they procrastinated to delay feeling like a failure.

While our fear of loss may impact our mindset and whether or not we pursue something new, if we let that fear take hold, then we’ve already lost. You never know unless you try is another popular quote that holds true. Don’t let fear of failure keep you from trying something new. 

Read more: How Failing Could Actually Help Us Succeed

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