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Why We Hate Losing Arguments So Much

We all like being right. That's why silly little disagreements — over things like who's the most interesting character on Mad Men or which place in town has the best sushi or whether it's you or your boyfriend who is the messier person — can sometimes blow up into bigger arguments. And, of course, we all like winning and hate losing — especially when it comes to a quibble with the person we're most emotionally tied to. We're so convinced that we're right that we don't pay as much attention to what the other person is saying. We focus our efforts on trying to assert (and assert and assert) our own point of view. The longer we argue about something, and the more emotional we feel about it, the more invested we become in the outcome of the disagreement, and the less logical we become.

Turns out, what might be most important to any one of us, in an argument, isn't winning, as Charlie Sheen may be surprised to hear. Not losing is what we're really concerned about, say the authors of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes. As they note, economists and psychologists have studied this kind of thing, and they've found that losing hurts twice as much as winning delights. (In strictly monetary terms, researchers found that if you lost $100, winning back the same amount wouldn't make you feel better; it'd take $200 to do that.) That is to say, we want to avoid losing at, um, all costs. The technical term for it is "loss aversion."

So why does this matter to you?

Because sometimes we hate to lose so much that we lose sight of what we're actually arguing about. We can't just say, "You know what? You're right, and I'm wrong." We become irrational. The pain of potentially losing the argument becomes so big that our perception of the point that's being debated becomes distorted.

What can we do about that?

The Spousonomics authors have a suggestion: Sleep on it.

Go to bed angry. Take a time out, and tell your boyfriend, "You know what? I love you. I'm tired. It's possible I may be irrational at this moment — but I think I'm right. Can we take 24 hours to think about this stuff and discuss it again then?"

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