You’re making irrational and bad decisions every day. And you don’t even know it.

You’re making irrational and bad decisions every day. And you don’t even know it – because bad decision making is built into your genetic code. Let me explain by introducing you to my first attempt at fighting my genetics and making a rational decision.

But, you have to stick it through for another 40 years, or else you’ll be WASTING your 4 years of education!

This is the nonsense I faced ever since I came out of the “career closet” and told the world (more like my friends, family and mentors) that I don’t want to be a lawyer. The outrage bubbled out of this notion that I had wasted my time on schooling, studying and working in a firm. There was little to no talk, however, about the opportunity to take the contacts I’ve made and skills I’d learned – namely, how to never cry in public and speed reading –  and applying it to better opportunities.

Despite the “advice” to follow the well beaten path, I decided to use the power of a law degree to gain a competitive advantage in the game of entrepreneurialism. My determination to follow my intuition, and not the advice, was supported by a nagging thought: why should I force myself to suffer another 40 more years simply because I’ve already suffered for four….And at this juncture, ladies and gentlemen, I had my first victory over our “loss aversion” neanderthal brain; a brain that prevents us from properly weighing “pros and cons” in order to trick us into taking the (mistakenly) predictable and safer, but worse, option.

Think you’re too smart to fall for any irrational behaviour? Well, have you ever:

  • Eaten the entire plate of food at a restaurant only because you paid for it and not because you’re enjoying it!?
  • Choked down a bunch of mouldy cheese because it’d be a waste of money to throw it out (okay, I do this a lot)?
  • Hold on to a dress/shirt/pants you never wear just because it was expensive?
  • Bought a pair of tickets for a movie and you watched the entire thing, despite the movie being terrible?
  • Failed to call it quits on a bad relationship or unfulfilling job because you already spent so much time in it?
  • Held on to a terrible client that takes up more energy than he’s worth?

If so, then you also suffer from neanderthal brain because, in each of these cases, you’ve let a relatively small sunk cost waste a disproportionate amount of your time, money and energy.

What drives us to hold on to bad relationships, bad projects, bad ideas and unfulfilling jobs?

Reason 1: Our genetics compels us to avoid suffering a loss, even when taking the loss would lead to an even greater opportunity

Exceptional researchers, psychologists and behavioural economists have spent more hours than Americans have on Netflix studying this bizarre “thing” we do: we make our decisions based on our fear of losing something, rather than the opportunity to vastly improve our situation. Essentially, we really don’t like the idea of losing. This holds true even when walking accepting a loss and moving on would make better financial, emotional or psychological sense (Wilson, Arvai, & Arkes, 2008).

Why are we so afraid of loss? Because it was once useful. Thousand of years ago, our job was to stay alive by avoiding threats, despite the possibility of a huge gain. For example, even if there was a 90% chance that a rustle in the bush was a warm plate of food and not a ravenous bear, we’d still choose the safer option – to hold tight to those berries we just picked and run away. Fast. After all, berries in hand are better than the risk of discovering a warm plate of food in the bush.

This very useful “loss aversion” approach to life helped us stay safer for longer. However, this focus on “saving” a past investment, rather than pivoting to a better option, is no longer useful. In fact, it’s detrimental.

Our “first world” lives are much safer, which has allowed for our loss aversion survival instinct to transform into a justification for inertia. After all, it’s easier to not change. Especially when our loss aversion instincts fool us into exaggerating the benefits of an “investment” (Festinger, 1957, 1961) so as to avoid admitting a loss or failure and to avoid pivoting (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994; Gilovich, Medvec, & Chen, 1995). The problem is that our neanderthal no longer protects us from the real threat in today’s society: a life filled with regret.

Reason 2: Our mental health depends upon us seeing the fruits of our labour, so walking away from our work to make a change hurts.

This is a bit existential, but it makes sense: we derive meaning from seeing that our efforts have produced something. Anything. This is because what we’ve produced is an extension of who we are. And to walk away from something which we’ve poured hours into creating is tantamount to saying: I don’t matter. I am garbage. I don’t exist.

Destroying our work has such an impact on our self worth that many POWs, gulag and concentration camp victims were purposefully subjected to this type of psychological torture; they’d be forced to dig a hole or build a wall and then fill it or dismantle it. This broke down their identity, purpose and essence of what it means to be human. Another, less horrid, study goes to explain this further:

“In Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos, Ariely asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both conditions, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. But while one group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says.

The Results: The first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.*

The researcher, Ariely, found that people derive validation, meaning and happiness from seeing their work. Destroying their work made them feel irrelevant and meaningless. It makes sense, then, that we’d push on despite all rational and economic factors screaming at us to walk away and pivot! For example, many of my friends and colleagues who are miserable in their professions won’t make a change because doing so, in their minds, would make all of their schooling and achievements irrelevant. In other words, they continue to spend their lives doing the same thing – despite hating it – because walking away would make them feel like their work and lost time and, therefore, they don’t matter.

So, what can we do about this deeply ingrained behaviour?

To see clearly, always remind yourself that you’re wearing neanderthal-coloured-glasses.

The goal is obvious: to fight our neanderthal brain, we must always ask ourselves: am I erring on the side of rational or irrational caution? For example, have you justified throwing good money after bad because nixing the project would mean that you’ve given up hope? Or, are you not making the change because you have 10 new orders coming in and these new orders will greatly offset any money invested?

What if you know you’re being irrational, but you can’t motivate yourself?

The answer is simple: leverage your aversion to loss.

We hate to lose things we have, so pretend like you already have what you want. And then imagine that you’ve lost what you want because you didn’t make a change. For example, let’s say that you have every rational reason to leave your job and do something new.

First, you’d imagine what it’d be like quitting your job – you’d be doing work that fulfills you and makes you more money. You’d imagine what your daily routine would look like, what you’d wear, where you’d go, what you’d eat, the people you’d work with, the feelings you’d experience etc. Go through every detail so as to make it feel as if it was already yours. Now imagine this glorious opportunity being taken away from you simply because you refused to cut your (minor, in comparison to the opportunity) losses and make a change.

If that isn’t painful enough, remember that palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, found that the most common regrets of the dying is not that they took a chance, but that they failed to do so. In other words, a life filled with “oh wells, is invariably better than a life filled with “what ifs”.

*For a fabulous Ted Talk on the subject of what motivates us visit Jessica Gross’ talk, What motivates us at work? More than Money.