Why We Keep Doing Things We Should Stop Doing

Brains naturally avoid change. Your brain wires itself a certain way early in life and grows comfortable with a familiar way of operating. It wants to stay that way.

You can train your brain to adjust to change, but it can be difficult. The way you rationalize change makes things more difficult.

Why? One theory is that you incorrectly rationalize avoiding change because of the "sunk cost fallacy," a term from economics. It says that when a company or individual has invested a certain amount of time or money into a project, it's that much harder to abandon it, even if abandoning it is the best choice.

watching movie

Say you buy a movie ticket and then find out before you go that the movie is really terrible. You'll probably go anyway instead of doing something you might enjoy more simply to justify having purchased the ticket, even if the logical thing to do is to skip the movie. Under the sunk cost fallacy, you make choices to avoid wasting resources, which can actually lead you to waste more resources to feel better about your past decision.

This particularly applies when you choose to remain in a relationship when it would make more sense to get out. Perhaps you've been dating someone for a year, and it's not going well anymore, and no one is happy. But you decide to keep going because you've invested a year of your life into it.

There are, of course, situations where it's best to ride out difficult times. But sometimes it makes sense just to end it. The important thing to avoid is maintaining it simply because of your sunk costs: You might end up wasting more time and energy just sticking with someone you no longer enjoy.

Another area where people often stay in place when it's time to make a change is in a job. It's the same idea: You've spent a year or two or three with a company, and you know the company isn't taking you where you need to go. But you feel like you should stay because you've already been there so long. Making the hard decision to try something new may be the smartest choice.

This isn't to say the best choice is always the one that involves a drastic life change or giving up when things get difficult. But people often refuse to assess their position rationally and make the call to cash in their chips when the time is right.

Breaking up or quitting a job is frightening in the short term. But languishing for no logical reason is often awful for the long term. Sometimes it's best to sell the house before it collapses.