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Die Another Day

You won't get far in the backcountry without pushing through challenging conditions and terrain. But perseverance can be your worst enemy, and turning around the only way to succeed. Mark Jenkins explores the fine line between daring and doom.

When you research “quitting,” you find mountains of material about how easy it is to quit smoking and how morally important it is to never quit at anything. Both are lies.

In one slim study published in the September 2007 issue of Psychological Science, 90 adolescent girls took a questionnaire that measured how they reacted when they had to stop pursuing an important goal; researchers also collected and analyzed blood from these girls.

Despite accounting for other variables (age, ethnicity, smoking, obesity, etc.), the girls who most resisted giving up had higher levels of C-reactive protein in their blood, a condition that precedes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

According to co-author Carsten Wrosch, a professor of psychology at Concordia University in Quebec, people who are better able to let go of goals may suffer fewer depressive symptoms and have lower levels of systemic inflammation. “Despite the popular and scientific enthusiasm for persistence, there are contexts in which it is likely maladaptive,” Wrosch writes. “Specifically, when people find themselves in situations in which they are unlikely to realize a goal, the most adaptive response may be to disengage from it.”

In another study published in 1984 in the Journal of Personality, psychologists compared high-self-esteem individuals to low-self-esteem individuals attempting difficult tasks. The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, subjects were given groups of three words and asked to add another that was similar in nature; in the second, subjects were given stacks of difficult, geometric puzzles to solve. Both experiments were timed and there was a clear understanding that at a certain point, it was best to quit and move on.

High-self-esteem humans, despite their confidence and ability to recognize information suggesting they should quit, didn’t. The study’s authors concluded: “Our results indicate that individuals with high self-esteem may be prone to engage in nonproductive persistence in some situations. There are indeed many situations in which renewed effort may not be the optimal response to failure.

Our impression is that many researchers tend to equate high self-esteem with health and optimal functioning. We suggest, however, that high self-esteem can mean delusionally conceited as easily as low self-esteem can mean pathologically insecure.”

Whoa!

I actually witnessed this very behavior on my expedition to Everest last spring. Everest climbers are often guided clients who have been successful in some other walk of life. They have high self-esteem and don’t quit easily. Some won’t quit no matter what. Five people died in one day on Everest when I was there, and in all cases, they only had to do one thing to save their lives: turn around.

Why do people refuse to change course when there are so many good reasons to do so? The most insightful research I uncovered was conducted by psychologist Barry Staw. In 1976 Staw wrote a paper wonderfully titled Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action, a work now considered a classic in the business world.

The term Staw coined, “escalating commitment,” is roughly defined as unduly persisting in an unsuccessful endeavor. In subsequent papers, Staw describes how individuals, businesses, and governments get “locked” into a course of action despite the fact that the outcomes have been consistently negative. He identifies three key elements of escalating commitment.

Optimism and illusions of control. People like to believe everything is going to work out. It feels good. “They see themselves as performing better than others in most situations and able to avoid future mishaps,” writes Staw. “Accidents and illness are things that happen to other people. Underlying such optimism is the belief that one can control one’s destiny.”

Self-justification. After having made a decision, “people convince themselves that it was the right thing to do,” which only increases their zealotry.

Sunk costs. After having devoted enormous resources of time, money, and emotion into a project, no matter how irrational it may be to continue, some people just can’t bear to pull out.

Again, my recent experience on Everest is perspicaciously instructive. All five of those who died on Everest refused to turn around. One specifically told her Sherpa that she had paid a lot for her expedition (sunk costs), and expected to reach the summit. Another insisted he was strong enough to reach the summit and descend (optimism and illusions of control), despite repeated advice to the contrary from his Sherpa. They had decided they would go to the top no matter if it killed them, and it did.

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