Futile Persistence: Why Do We Keep Our Bad Habits?
We are motivated by self-interest yet regularly act to undermine it.
Posted Aug 26, 2020
It’s a paradoxical truth of human existence that we are motivated by self-interest yet regularly act in ways that undermine it. This curious tendency often manifests in the form of futile persistence. We keep going to the well long after it has dried up. Routines are kept well beyond the play of their utility. Rituals are enacted having long outlived their relevance or purpose. Relationships continue well past their expiration dates, having turned sour, destructive, or empty.
At times, our unproductive or self-injurious habits metastasize into catastrophes. The most extreme examples are seen in addictions and OCD behaviors. But we need not go to extremes. All of us in our everyday lives consistently fail to shed response patterns that have repeatedly failed to deliver positive consequences. To wit: Consider how many spousal arguments are in effect reruns of the same tired plot; well-trodden circular paths to nowhere.
Why do we persist in pursuing futile paths of action? For one, the tendency may be merely the shadow side of our innate tenacity. After all, the human capacity for perseverance in the face of failure has a large upside. Persistence through repeated failure often pays off down the road—the Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers--and is often a source of strength and a prerequisite for success. Becoming stuck in a futile pattern may just be a case of “too much of a good thing is bad.”
Alternatively, we are often inclined to repeat some otherwise callous behavior because it provides short-term relief or pleasure. The human brain has evolved to privilege the short-term. I know that my overspending will hurt me in the long run. But right now shopping is fun. And I'm here right now.
Moreover, the short-term reward is often both certain and emotional while the long-term calculation is uncertain and cerebral. It is hard work for our brain to bring our cerebral, strategic, rational process to bear on an immediate, emotionally gratifying experience. The French fries are right in front of me now, and boy, do they smell great! They represent a certainty of pleasure. The heart attack is years away and represents only a probability of pain.
In addition, part of the difficulty in breaking useless or destructive behavior patterns has to do with the inherent power of habits themselves. Contrary to popular belief, and to the ways we like to perceive ourselves, much of our behavior is not "free" but rather scripted, conditioned, and, over time, automatized. Automatic habits require no conscious attention, and will hence persist unless consciously disrupted. Cues that have become associated with a response will continue to elicit it, regardless of the response’s effectiveness in the environment.
We continue to buy overpriced, stale popcorn at the movies because that's what we’ve always done. What we’ve always done becomes what we do. What we do over time becomes who we are. Thus, we may experience a change of habit as identity change—a far heavier lift.
Moreover, futile persistence may be facilitated further by the limits of our behavioral vocabulary. We can only do what we know how to do. If we only have a hammer, we will continue to bang on things, even when they don’t look at all like nails.
Another part of the reason for our persistent futility may reside in the cognitive domain. Our beliefs and convictions play an important role in shaping our actions. I’m more likely to continue to yell at my daughter to clean her room if I believe that cleaning one’s room is important, that teens should listen to their parents, and that yelling is the best means to that end at my disposal.
Looking deeper into this phenomenon, one may also conjecture—in the psychodynamic tradition--that those who place themselves repeatedly, and freely, in a place of pain and self-punishment are involved in an elaborate dance of wish fulfillment—maneuvering (unconsciously) to get what they feel they deserve. In addition, persistent rituals that appear futile at the level of content may often serve a latent purpose at the level of process. When my spouse and I argue vehemently about politics, we are unlikely to change each other’s minds. But our noisy, heated arguments may implicitly denote passion, which we may value in each other.
Finally, this pattern of futile persistence—like much of living—has to do with a calculus of fear. Often, we keep engaging in a dead-end ritual because we fear that the alternative is worse.
Battered spouses often remain in the destructive relationship in part because they believe that attempting to leave is more dangerous than staying. The calculus of fear often holds that the right thing to avoid is the thing that will hurt the most; at times, the price of accomplishing that is choosing something that hurts less. The great James Baldwin alluded to this dynamic when he wrote: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Viewed thus, we can see that seemingly self-punitive behavior may in fact constitute an attempt at self-protection—accepting a destructive yet familiar and manageable harm in order to avoid a much bigger threat.
In my clinical work, I often find it useful to inspect this logic with my clients. For example: Consider a woman who sees herself as a writer but somehow never finds the time to actually write. On its face, her avoidance of writing is self-punitive, as it frustrates her and prevents her from manifesting her identity, getting paid, and advancing her chosen career.
However, the avoidance may in fact protect her from an even greater threat—that her writing, when completed, will be judged deficient and unworthy. Given this fear, her avoidance can be seen as a rational strategy masquerading as irrationality. The actual damage of being exposed as a non-writer may very well exceed that of remaining a perpetual would-be writer.
On the other hand, it may not. And herein lies the rub. Quite often, the underlying premise—accept this little pain to avoid a bigger pain—is ill-considered and warrants close scrutiny. After all, the things that scare us most are rarely those that pose the most danger, and the precision of our affective forecasting—the ability to forecast our future levels of hurt and joy—is notoriously low.
Thus, in those instances where futile persistence indeed is found to be a form of avoidance, we may be wise to reassess both the harm we incur by keeping the ineffective habit and the danger posed by the eventuality we’re avoiding. Often, a close analysis will show that we have been undervaluing the former and overvaluing the latter.
The writer in the above example may realize that, in fact, failing to write is more harmful than she’d acknowledged. Avoidance, after all, teaches us nothing but how to avoid more; it feeds on itself, metastasizing to induce existential paralysis.
Writing and being judged deficient, on the other hand, may turn out to be much less devastating than she had feared. After all, most of us will at some point have our dreams derailed. When that happens, most of us are not destroyed. Rather, we find new, attainable dreams to aim for (as the saying goes: “If God gives you lemons, find another God”). Once the faulty premise upon which her behavior is based has been debunked, the client may find the courage and motivation to change her behavior and begin to write, thus sidestepping the avoidance trap and engaging in earnest the adventure of living.