You can relate to the challenge a deer tick faces. It waits on a twig, ready to drop when it smells butyric acid wafting up from below, evidence that there’s a mammal to land on and blood to suck. But the tick can’t wait forever or it will starve, so something in the tick knows when to give up waiting, fall to the forest floor and climb to some other twig.
It’s the same challenge Alan Turing, the inventor of the digital computer, called the halting problem: Programming a computer to search for a pattern in a string of seemingly random numbers, you have to also program in when the computer should halt the search, in effect giving up on finding the pattern.
Maybe there is no pattern; maybe there is one and the computer just didn’t find it in the time allotted. I call this Turing’s Blurring Anxiety (TBA): When you’re trying to accomplish something, unless and until it is accomplished, you won’t know whether it can’t be accomplished or just hasn’t been accomplished yet. The distinction between those two outcomes is blurred.
In everyday life, Turing’s halting problem could be called the loyalty problem. Loyalty to a person, a project, a task, or a belief is a dogged commitment—in it for the long haul, loyal through thick and thin. But how long a haul? How much thin before we give up, like the deer tick or the computer program, deciding it’s too thin—time to do something else, seek other goals, make other commitments?
I’m a romantic and a skeptic. With skeptics, I believe that we don’t stick with anything for nothing. We’re driven by cost/benefit analysis, skin in the game, asking "what’s in it for me and my objectives?”
Sure, we idealize unconditional loyalty, love and commitment, and we cite as evidence of un-conditionality people sticking with things to the bending end, the thinnest of thins. But the fact that people stick with something through all the thin they’re presented with doesn’t mean they had no conditions. You might give your life for a good cause, but that doesn’t mean you would have stayed loyal to the cause if it meant that your family would be killed or your country nuked.
Likewise, you might love and stay with your spouse through extremely rough times, but that doesn’t mean you have no conditions. If your spouse became some kind of monster, your love would be affected and your commitment would change.
You care about outcomes, consequences, the rewards and punishments for your effort. Cost/benefit analysis, whether conscious or unconscious, is operative in all of us on all decisions.
Still, I’m with the romantics in that I don’t think cost/benefit analysis is operative in real time all the time, as though the moment that costs outweigh benefits we just bail, saying “This isn’t worth it. I’m outta here.”
People think of cost/benefit analysis as cold and unromantic because they assume it’s the opposite of loyalty. In a way it is in that when you’re loyal, you give cost-benefit a rest for the time being. Your spouse could be a monster for a day and, loyal as you are, you’re not going to re-evaluate the payoffs of staying in the marriage.
Still, something in you will register the monster day, and if there are too many in a row, you’ll re-evaluate. How many is too many, is a product of a higher-level cost/benefit analysis in which you wonder whether it pays to stay loyal.
Loyalty happens, though not unconditionally. The loyalty problem, like Turing's halting problem is us weighing the costs and benefits of weighing the costs and benefits of staying loyal. When we’re loyal, we ignore the cost benefit analysis, but when things get too tough, we ask ourselves “is this loyal commitment worth re-evaluating? Is it worth attending again to the cost benefit analysis of staying with this.”
Deciding when to re-decide—that’s the loyalty problem.
Loyalty is being OK with things not being OK. Decision theorists call it a paradoxical move, pain for gain, hurting today to feel better tomorrow, taking a disadvantage today for a possible advantage tomorrow--delayed gratification, but more accurately delayed uncertain gratification, a leap of faith. And while animals make such paradoxical moves by instinct, we humans have much more leeway in choosing our paradoxical moves.
See, we humans have language which enables us to imagine future satisfaction, a vision of our goals achieved. For example, you might picture your future as a satisfied lawyer, and so decide to borrow money and stay up all hours studying for the bar exam when you don’t want to. You’re loyal to your lawyerly goal, at least until you reach the limits of your loyalty to that goal. If it gets rough enough you might decide to re-decide whether it’s worth it.
And then, having decided it isn’t, you’re likely to experience some TBA. Was becoming a lawyer unachievable or did you just not achieve it yet? You can’t tell. The distinction is blurred.
Language enables us to imagine possible future satisfactions but also possibly missed opportunities, “what if’s” but also “if only’s.” That’s another language-based difference between us and the deer tick. Waiting on the next twig, the tick is not going to be thinking “Crap, maybe I should have stuck with that last twig. Maybe a deer was just around the corner.”
A capacity for loyalty—being OK with not OK—can have enormous payoffs. You’ve probably heard about the “marshmallow test,” a famous experiment in which psychologists investigated how long little children could resist eating one marshmallow immediately so they can get two marshmallows 15 minutes later—loyalty to a later marshmallow bounty. In general, kids who could wait longer grew up to be more successful adults.
A capacity for such loyalty is great to have in your repertoire, but it’s not worth much if you don’t know when to exercise it, in other words when you you're not good at dealing with the Loyalty Problem, distinguishing well between loyalty that is worth and not worth it.
We all know people who are too loyal, flogging a dead horse, throwing good money after bad, chasing a rainbow, barking up the wrong tree, waiting for things they’ll never get, clinging, being in denial, not knowing when to quit.
In George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, on which the musical My Fair Lady is based, Eliza Dolittle’s father is eager to marry his girlfriend because once they marry he’ll have his wife’s loyalty. With her locked in he can do no wrong by her. She’ll be OK with it not being OK, and hence he’ll have the freedom to treat her badly, whereas in courtship, he’s got to keep winning her over.
We love each other’s loyalty to us. Nothing would please us more than carte blanche freedom to do what we want, without risk to the security of other people's support. We dream of a loyal fan base, a loyal readership, a loyal spouse, a high plateau we could reach and stay on securely forever. Dreaming of such loyalty motivates our glorification of unconditional love, fame (Fans who love us loyally) and heaven (God’s eternal loyalty).
And we cultivate our loyalty to others for our own sakes too. We don’t like being flapped by every little “not OK.” It’s exhausting when every little rough patch breeds doubt and a compulsion to re-decide some commitment we’ve made.
Loyalty is our shock-absorber. We want others to have shock absorbers with us so we have the freedom to bounce them around, and we want shock absorbers too, so we don’t get bounced around by others.
In partnership, for example, we try to be OK with our partner’s ups and downs. Not being OK means getting a bumpy ride. And it also means cramping our partner’s style, and what kind of love is that?
The loyalty problem is a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge even when it’s in a commitment to something that isn’t committed back, for example your loyalty to a belief or to a goal, like getting through law school.
But the loyalty problem is especially challenging when it’s loyalty toward someone who is loyal back, someone whose loyalty we’re counting on. We want to say and hear “I’m loyal to you as a person so I’ll honor your decision to leave. I’ll be OK with it being even that not OK.” But to be OK with it being that not OK, we have to protect our hearts by having a plan B should our partners decide to leave. And having a plan B makes our partners ask, “how reliable is my partner really?”
I want to love a partner so loyally and honorably that my love for her never forces her off her life path as she choses it. To give, but not impose my love means to bless her choices whatever they may be. If she decides she’s better off without me, it’s not loving of me to compel her to stay.
I love her because being with her is so extremely OK, but I want to love her loyally, loyal to her freedom, which means I have to love her even when it’s not OK for me.
And is that kind of loyalty OK with her? Yes and no. She loves the freedom, and reciprocates in kind, giving me the freedom to follow my heart too even if it means leaving her.
But who among us is really OK staying loyal to someone who is OK with us leaving? What kind of commitment can we expect from someone like that? In general, if you sense that your partner is OK with you leaving, you’ll assume he or she has one foot out the door. And if that’s the case how can you be in with both feet? Two people who are OK with the other leaving have to protect their hearts somehow.
We see this tension play out in early courtship, potential partners saying “I really want to be with you, but hey, it’s cool if you don’t want to be with me.” Saying that can make partners feel safer exploring partnership with us, but it can also make them feel unsafe, like “if he can take or leave me, how safe am I committing here?”
One of the two best scenes in the movie “Team America” has a man courting a woman whose former partner was killed just after he proposed marriage. She’s wary about getting committed again, since loyalty to someone who died was just too painful.
Finally she relents to her new suitor and says, “OK, I can commit to you if you promise me you’ll never die,” and, with a straight face her suitor says, “I promise, I will never die.” In the next scene they’re making wild passionate love.
I suppose that’s one solution: Promise to be loyally present forever, knowing you may very well not be.