Why people in a hole don't stop digging.
Posted Oct 03, 2018
Psychology isn’t rocket science. It’s much more complicated.
As Newton said, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people,” and he was famously complicated—many would say among the maddest. When asked to name his greatest achievement, he said it was lifelong celibacy.
Given the complexity of human nature, we seek simple broad-stroke explanations for why we do the things we do. Here’s one that may not get enough attention.
We dread anything that disturbs us in our grooves. Merrily we roll along, and when there’s a bump in the road it annoys us. And why? Because it makes us doubt our groove.
Evidence that we’re in the right groove makes us happy, even elated. Our contentment is such confidence that we’re in the right groove that no doubts nag. In happiness or contentment, we get the sense that doubt is a thing of the past—we’re over it. Smooth sailing happily ever after. We’ll never again have to worry about whether we should be doing something else.
Though many people say they love to learn, what they really mean is that they love that they have learned. They once were lost and now they’re found. They wouldn’t like to find out they’re lost again.
Sure, we welcome learning but only what affirms us in our grooves. No one welcomes discovering that they have to unlearn and start over because their groove has led them astray. We loathe setbacks. To discover that we must start over is like finding out you need to spend $5,000 you don’t have on a root canal, $100K to fix your home’s foundation, or billions to address climate change. Setbacks wake up sleeping dogs we’d rather let lie.
When we hit an unexpected speed bump within our groove, we’re lifted out of it, forced to peer over its containing walls to other possible grooves that might serve us better. When something fails us in our groove, the containing walls drop. The groove becomes shallower, no longer contained. We’re more easily perturbed out of it. We hate that.
That’s when we say, enough!; we’ve had it up to here; we can’t afford any more perturbation, not just because we’re annoyed but because the perturbations feel like free fall when our groove gets shallow. We get defensive. Our groove doesn’t hold us well enough so we start railing, flailing, and snarling as if to find the groove’s railings that have slipped from our hands. We spout and finger-point to drown out the possibility that we should be doing something else entirely.
That every journey to a different groove begins with a single step is a nice and motivating notion but it’s inaccurate. Journeys to different grooves begin with singularly difficult first steps. Deciding to divorce, lose weight, reroute our careers, move to a new town or otherwise face the music, read the writing on the wall, and pull up stakes is not fun and exciting but dreadful and taxing.
Take losing weight. Rather than ignoring the pudge, you’re now attending to it. It’s disappointing evidence that your groove hasn’t been working. Those first visits to the gym are dispiriting. You see how fat you’ve become. You feel the jiggle with every aerobic bounce. You’re overwhelmed by how far you have to go before you gain any confidence that your new exercise groove is worth it.
Every journey begins with the nagging sense that you might be off on a fool’s errand. You can’t tell whether the benefits will be worth the cost. We can do accurate cost-benefit analysis on the past but not on the future. Who knows how long it will take to get fit—or if you ever will?
You miss your old groove so much you’ll be tempted to return to it, but you can’t without facing defeat. Your pudge was a sleeping dog; now it’s awake. You’d have to learn how to ignore it all over again. In transition from one groove to another, you’re sprawled in a no-mans land between the groove you left and the new groove you hope will hold you but might not.
Many people crusade for greater open-mindedness as if it’s the obvious solution. It might be, but not if we don’t face how much open-mindedness really costs. It costs everyone, even the crusaders. They show no greater receptivity to changing their mind than others who don’t identify with the crusade.
What the crusaders really mean is that everyone should be more open to the crusader’s deep-grooved opinions. We’re most likely to hear “Be more open-minded” from people who assume we should agree with them. Likewise, we’re more likely to hear scorn for closed-mindedness and “being judgmental” from people who are disappointed that we don’t affirm their grooves.
In short, we are all perturbation-averse. We prefer cruising our grooves over switching, and if forced by circumstances to consider an alternative, we snarl. We get defensive. We get addicted to any groove we depend upon, even lies, no matter how howlingly unrealistic they become.
These days, many of us wonder why people are such sticks-in-the-mud, why people clearly in a hole don’t stop digging, and why the escalating accusations are ramping up so fast in politics. It’s people railing, grasping at the railings, craving restoration to their snug, deep, and cozy grooves. The ground under all of us quakes with news of unforeseen costs and the uncertain benefits of paying them. We dig in our heels, we burrow in, deflecting and snarling at all challenges from reality and others. We’d much prefer signs that we’re on course so we can just stay the course.
It’s psychic momentum, a human parallel to Newton’s force of a body moving on its path, and it's resistance to work that would shift it off its path. The heavier your commitment, the more momentum you’ve got and the harder it is to move you off your path.
It’s one thing to try to lose a few pounds and quite another to lose a hundred, a more entrenched hole to dig out of, so of course, all of us, no matter how much lip service we give to receptivity and change, get stubborn, insisting that our groove is the greatest.
We’re buzzed by our in-the-groove caffeinated momentum. Mojo is a good name for it. And we get ornery, protective, and defensive, scapegoating when we’re deprived of it by other people or by chance alone.