Win, Lose or Quit?

Your animal brain would rather quit than lose. Don’t cave!

Posted Jul 12, 2012

Your higher brain says “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Your animal brain says "avoid losing no matter what." What’s a self-respecting hominid to do?

I was a quitter when I was young, so I was fascinated to learn how animals resolve their differences. Each animal mentally compares itself to the other guy. If it thinks it can win, it goes for it. If it thinks it might lose, it backs off. Losing can be deadly in the animal world, where there are no doctors to patch up your wounds. Discretion is the better part of valor. (More on this in my earlier post on Social Comparison: Taming the Beast.)

In modern times, you’re better off staying in the game even if you lose. That builds the skills you need to win in the future. But something keeps telling you “don’t be a loser.” It drives to quit when you think you can’t win, even though you deprive yourself of the chance to develop. 

You can resist that voice. You can be a loser! That is, you can tolerate the inevitable losses on the road to success in a competitive world. But you have to re-wire yourself to do that. You have to build new neural pathways, by substituting a new thought for an old thought.

Whenever you feel like quitting, visualize the skill you would build if you hung in. 

Do NOT visualize being a “winner.” You may not win, and your positive imagery must be believable in order to trigger your happy chemicals. You can believe in an image of your skills advancing by a step or two.

Do NOT think about how bad it would feel to lose. Your brain is already good at that, and unhappy chemicals get triggered. Avoid that by putting your focus on the positive skill-building outcome.

Do NOT expect this to work overnight. Lots of repetition is necessary to build new neural pathways. Do this for 45 days and you will build a pathway that’s strong enough to divert you from your old animal instincts.

When I talk about “staying in the game,” I’m not thinking about sports. As a teacher and a parent, I'm thinking of the students who give up trying because it hurts to get a bad grade. Instead of trying and failing, they choose not study, and tell themselves “I woulda done good if I studied.”  This is the animal brain at work. It resists being vulnerable because weaklings are soon eaten in the state of nature. To rise above this primal fear, students must build a new mental habit. They must link their well-being to self-development rather than self-protection.

I am also thinking about friends who refuse to date to avoid rejection. Do you know people who don’t even try to have a relationship because it hurts to fail? They miss out on the rewards of a relationship because their brain is so good at imagining the pain of losing. They don’t realize that their brain could imagine something different.

You can probably think of many other examples of quitting to avoid losing. The person who say, “I could stop drinking whenever I really wanted to.” The person who says, “I’m going to straighten up my home as soon as I can afford something great.”

And then there’s Homer Simpson's unforgettable fatherly advice: “You tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”

Quitters often blame the cruel world for their disappointments. They condemn "our society" for its competitiveness and tell themselves that cooperation is the state of nature. This is a fantasy (albeit a seductive and popular fantasy). Animals do cooperate at times, but to make that the norm you have to filter out what they're doing most of the time. Animals don’t even get to have sex unless they compete successfully. Their genes don’t get passed on if they're not in the game. This applies to females as well as males, as the subtle rivalries among females affect the survival rates of their offspring.

You are descended from individuals who succeeded at reproduction. You are not descended from quitters. 

You’ve heard the expression “Quitters never win. Winners never quit.” I’m NOT saying that. I don't think you should obsess about winning. I think you should promote your well-being. To avoid losing does not promote your well-being. Engaging with reality promotes your well-being. 

Much more on this in my new book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals.