Let's Call it Quits: Break-Even Effects in the Decision to Stop Taking Risks

Peter A. F. Fraser-Mackenzie, Tiejun Ma, Ming-Chien Sung, Johnnie E. V. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract “Chasing” behavior, whereby individuals, driven by a desire to break even, continue a risky activity (RA) despite incurring large losses, is a commonly observed phenomenon. We examine whether the desire to break even plays a wider role in decisions to stop engaging in financially motivated RA in a naturalistic setting. We test hypotheses, motivated by this research question, using a large data set: 707,152 transactions of 5,379 individual financial market spread traders between September 2004 and April 2013. The results indicate strong effects of changes in wealth around the break-even point on the decision to cease an RA. An important mediating factor was the individual's historical long-term performance. Those with a more profitable trading history were less affected by a fall in cash balance below the break-even point compared to those who had been less profitable. We observe that break-even points play an important role in the decision of nonpathological risk takers to stop RAs. It is possible, therefore, that these nonpathological cognitive processes, when occurring in extrema, may result in pathological gambling behavior such as “chasing.” Our data set focuses on RAs in financial markets and, consequently, we discuss the implications for institutions and regulators in the effective management of risk taking in markets. We also suggest that there may be a need to consider carefully the nature and role of “break-even points” associated with a broader range of nonfinancially-focused risk-taking activities, such as smoking and substance abuse.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1560-1581
Number of pages22
JournalRisk Analysis
Issue number7
Early online date16 Jan 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Jan 2019


  • Break-even effects
  • ceasing a risky activity
  • mental models


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