For all that the culture exhorts us to hang in and never quit, the truth is that human beings tend to be resistant to change and, additionally, tend to overstay in relationships, rather than leave the party early.
We applaud repeated efforts—even if they end in failure—because our cultural tropes tell us that trying is what matters, and that “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” But that’s actually not true.
Most of us don’t know when to stop or head for the exit, much to our detriment. Think about it: When was the last time you heard someone say, “Gee, I wish I’d stayed in that relationship/marriage/job/situation longer?”
Truth is that most of us end up regretting the time we put into something that, with 20/20 hindsight, clearly wasn’t going to work anyway. What makes us such devotees of Saint Jude, the patron of lost causes?
1. Seeing a miss as a “near win”
Human beings are hardwired to respond to positive cues, a result of evolutionary hardwiring that was once useful when the challenges of life were largely physical.
Imagine for a moment our ancient forebear hunting for caribou. He misses the first time and then the second but rather than give up, his brain absorbs what’s just happened not as a miss but as a near-win. Now that’s good if you’re the hunter because that mindset permits you to focus on how you can turn that near-win into a real win—by lowering your bow or changing your position or something else. It’s also a good thing if you’re playing a sport today.
But the ‘near win’ perspective is not so great if you’re playing slot machines or in a relationship. Our tendency to register near wins keep us stuck in what really is a hopeless situation. That’s exactly what Marcy came to realize about her relationship to Tim:
From the beginning, what we wanted was different. Tim doesn’t want or need the kind of intimate connection I want, and we fought constantly about how inattentive I thought he was and how he ignored my needs. Then he’d do something sweet and I’d get all hopeful about how he really was changing and, of course, a few months would pass and then the cycle would start again.
2.The power of intermittent reinforcement
Yes, we have B.F. Skinner to thank for this bit of truth and if you’ve got vague memories of something you heard in Psych 101, you’re spot on.
Skinner put three hungry rats in cages, each with a lever. In the first cage, every time the rat pushes the lever, food is released. It doesn’t take the rat long to realize that this is a reliable thing and the rat goes off and does what rats do when they’re not hungry because he knows there will always be food when he is hungry. In the second cage, the rat pushes the lever and nothing happens. He pushes again and there’s still nothing. The rat gives up and wanders off. It’s what happens in the third cage, though, that is of interest. Here, the rat pushes the lever and sometimes it delivers food pellets and sometimes it doesn’t. This gets the rat totally fixated and he keeps pushing and pushing—will this be the time the food gets delivered or will it be empty? He’s hooked, glued to that lever, night and day.
That was certainly Dora’s experience:
We’d have these knock-down, drag-out fights and my spouse would promise to be more attentive of my needs and less controlling. He’d be on good behavior for a time, and then the old patterns would come back and the fights would start. I didn’t get how I was contributing to the dynamic until I finally went into therapy and saw he was just placating me, not hearing me at all. He just kept throwing me a bone or two to keep the marriage going.
Moral: our persistence is actually increased when we get what we want some of the time. (For you Sex and the City fans, this is the chemistry that fuels Carrie and Mr. Big.) So, when your lover finally responds in the way you want, your heart leaps for joy and you are totally positive that the turning point has been reached. But it hasn’t, of course.
And, if your boss doesn’t bite your head off, you bask in sunlight, determined you’ll be able to make things work. This is true in toxic mother-daughter relationships too: just a hint of something that appears to be vaguely affectionate is enough to light the fires of hopefulness. This particular foible comes with its own pair of rose-colored glasses.
3. Humans are loss averse
Anecdotally, we tend to think of people as being motivated by possible gain but that’s not what science knows: The truth is that we’re all much more motivated by not losing something we already have than we are inspired by the possibility of gain. (Thank you to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky.) In fact, even how we think about investments keeps us stuck; see #4.
4. We use the sunk-cost fallacy
This wrong-headed way of thinking has justified wars and foreign policy, along with countless everyday decisions by people like you and me: Rather than focus on what we might gain by abandoning one path or failing experience, we hone in on what we already have invested. That investment could be time, money, energy or anything else that comes to mind.
People use this justification to stay put— “If I were to leave now, I’d just be throwing away the last five years of my life”—without fully realizing that the better focus would be to imagine what the next five years could be like if they actually extricated themselves. This fallacy feeds the dead-end or toxic relationship that’s invigorated by intermittent reinforcement from time to time.
5.The unattainable has its own special allure
Yes, it’s not just the torch singer who bemoans the one that got away: We all do it.
Being frustrated in our attempts to attain a goal—snagging the promotion at work, getting your spouse to be more responsive, being able to put a relationship on a more even keel—makes that goal even more special, valuable, and tantalizing. (The word tantalizing comes from the Greek myth about Tantalus, whom the gods punished by putting him in a pool of water with a branch of fruit over his head; the waters would recede when he was thirsty and the branch would shift, out of reach, whenever he was hungry.) Just out of reach—which is how we tend to see it—feeds our hopefulness, our appreciation of whatever or whomever eludes our grasp, and keeps us endlessly stuck.
So, if you’re tired of the lost causes in your life, pay attention to these five habits of mind that are keeping you in place. And find a better patron than Saint Jude.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
The science and research are drawn from my book, Quitting—Why We Fear It and Why We shouldn’t—In Life, Love, and Work. New York: Da Capo, 2015.
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