Every time I hit the wall and I realize that things aren’t going to change, I find myself making a mental list of why I should stay with him. It drives my girlfriends crazy because all I do is talk about how unhappy I am and then I can’t seem to summon up the courage to leave. I’ve been married for eight years and actively miserable for at least three. What’s up with that?
It was this conversation, among others, that sparked my interest in why people have so much trouble heading for the exit even when they’re desperately unhappy and ultimately ended up with my writing a book about it. For all that the culture exhorts us to hang in and keep persisting, the reality is that human beings are hardwired never to leave the party early; in fact, most of us—much to our chagrin when 20/20 hindsight is applied—are way more likely to stay long past the expiration date of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Why we stay when we should be going
Unconscious habits of mind are largely to blame for which we can thank evolution. Hanging in and persistence became default positions for our ancient forbears because when the challenges of life were largely physical— hunting and bringing down caribou for food, fording a stream, climbing a treacherous incline—those who persisted were more likely to succeed and survive. Some others—such as loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy—helped early humans resist impulses to set off on their own because being part of a tribe was beneficial to survival.
All of those unconscious ways of thinking still operate, unseen, in our decision-making processes and, not surprisingly, keep us stuck.
How to get your thinking unstuck (and get your mojo working)
Whether it’s a lousy relationship we’re hanging on to, a job that makes us dread the work week, our inability to get ourselves motivated enough to make changes in our lives or any other version of stuckness you’ve experiencing, the first thing to do is to take a look at which of these thought processes are hijacking your ability to act.
- Worrying about what you’ve got invested
The fancy name for this is the sunk cost fallacy and it’s the habit of mind that focuses on what you’ve already put into the situation—that could be time, energy, effort, or money—and has you worrying about “losing” that investment. On the very surface, this seems smart, diligent, and responsible—after all, shouldn’t an adult consider his or her investment? —but it isn’t. Whatever you’ve put in is already gone, and sticking it out longer isn’t going to bring it back, regardless of whether it’s time, effort, or money. This kind of thinking glues your feet to the ground— “I’ve already put ten years into this marriage and all that time will be wasted if I leave”—and stops you from considering where you’ll be in a year, two years or five if you head for the door.
- Misreading vaguely positive cues as trends
For this, we can thank two unconscious habits of mind—seeing the “near win” as a win and the power of intermittent reinforcement. Evolution, once again, gets the thanks for both which presumably once were really useful. The near win phenomenon is what gets people hooked in a casino as studies show. There’s no logical reason at all for someone playing the slot machine to believe that having three of the same symbol—whether it’s a fruit or a number—will increase your chances of having four matching ones come up the next time but that’s exactly what the brain thinks: Winning is just around the corner. In fact, one British study showed that the brains of people playing lit up in the same way with a near-win as a real one! Again, responding to the near win in this way is good if you’re trying to perfect a physical skill; in a relationship, almost getting what you want just keeps you in place as it does the gambler.
Then, if that weren’t enough, enter intermittent reinforcement. If you took Psych 101 and the name B.F. Skinner is popping up in your memory, you’re on the money. Skinner took three hungry rats and put them in cages with levers. In one cage, pushing the lever reliably delivered food every time; interestingly, once the rat understood that, he went about his business and forgot about the lever until he got hungry. In the second cage, pushing the lever produced no food ever and once the rat understood that, he forgot about the lever. But in the third cage, the lever produced food some of the time on an intermittent basis. This rat became obsessed with the lever, pushing and pushing and pushing,
And, yes, intermittent reinforcement does that to the human brain too. Getting what you want some of the time fires up persistence robustly and reliably, and also amps up your optimism for no good reason. You’re likely to take one incident, blow it up way out of proportion, and declare it a trend! No kidding.
So your lover or spouse finally acts the way you’ve always wanted him to on one occasion and all of your doubts vanish and your brain is screaming,” We can do this. He’s coming around!” Of course, then the old patterns reinsert themselves and you’re thinking about how this is never going to work when, out of nowhere, he’s loving and attentive, and you go,” Yes! It’s all happening. Love conquers all.”
Uh huh. A toast to the power of stuck and the plot line of Carrie and Mr. Big for years of Sex in the City and many ordinary lives in love and work.
- You’ve more afraid of losing than gaining
In fact, that’s true of all human beings, not just you, and it just so happens that figuring out that loss aversion determines decision-making when people consider taking a risk won psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize in Economics for work he’d done with Amos Twersky. You think you’re daring and a risk-taker, don’t you, but science knows better. People will do just about anything to avoid a certain loss when they’re considering a possible gain; the hold-on-to-what-you’ve-got state of mind prevails because, deep down, humans are very conservative. Then again, it gets complicated; even though you may be deeply unhappy, there are usually some things you really don’t want to lose, especially when you are clueless about what the future holds for you.
So guess what? You look down after thinking about loss and see that you have metaphorically placed hundred-pound weights around your ankles.
Sometimes, we’re the obstacles we need to overcome when we’re desperate for a change. Pay attention to how you’re thinking about your life and you may find that, suddenly, you’re on the move.
Photograph by Al Yorio. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
This post is drawn from the research done for my book, Quitting—Why We Fear It and Why We Shouldn’t—In Life, Love, and Work.