Grit or Quit?

"Should I stay or should I go" is one of life's eternal questions.

The question of whether to quit or persevere can be applied to a range of situations: from projects, careers, and educational pursuits, to relationships and investments. Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued for the value of staying. Much of her work has focused on the concept of grit: the ability to pursue long-term goals without giving up when encountering setbacks. In a series of studies, she and her colleagues have shown the importance of grit for things such as completing high school and success in higher education. Grittier people even stay married longer.

Duckworth’s early studies fascinated me and in 2016 I traveled to the US to visit her lab. After this meeting, my research group brought back her original grit questionnaire to use in a study of our own.  In this study, a group of six-year-old children underwent an 8-week long cognitive training program, to improve working memory, attention and mathematics. Prior to beginning the training, teachers rated the children’s grit. We also asked them a battery of questions to evaluate intrinsic motivation. What we wanted to find out was: what kind of motivation can explain why some children improve more than others during cognitive training?

We found that ratings of grit significantly predicted some differences in the amount of progress the children achieved during the training1. However, none of the other motivational measures did, nor did ratings of ADHD symptoms. To me, this was an additional argument for the value of grit, at least when it comes to cognitive training.   

We also investigated the link between grit and the brain. We had two hypotheses: that grit would either be linked to the prefrontal cortex, known to be key to planning, inhibition, working memory, and attention, or, that grit is linked to the basal ganglia: lumps of gray matter deep in the brain which receives dopamine and are known to be important for motivation.

Interestingly, it was the latter that turned out to be true. We showed that grit, in 6-year-old children, was related to a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens. Animal studies have shown that a lesion of this structure leads to a lack of perseverance. They stop working for long-term rewards, such as taking a difficult, long path to a future morsel of food. They simply lack the drive.

But always persevering can have its negative side, as illustrated by the “sunk cost fallacy”. The sunk cost is the time, money, or effort you already spent on a project, a company, or a relationship. The fallacy is the belief that, since you already spent all this time and effort, you would be foolish to quit. To quit would be an acknowledgment of failure. But economists argue that if what you are doing isn’t likely to work out, the rational choice is to stop throwing good money after bad.

In a new book, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, psychologist Annie Duke argues for the value of quitting. Early in her career, Duke made a living as a professional poker player. Her books, as well as her research on decision making, build on the strategies used by players. In Quit, she notes that professional players fold (i.e. quit) more often than amateurs. The professional players seem much more willing to start over: preferring to reset completely rather than risking a commitment to a bad hand. 

Another example Duke provides is the turnaround time used by people climbing Mount Everest:  if the summit is not reached by that time the risk of continuing is much too high–it is time to turn back. She goes on to argue that it would be useful to set these "kill criteria" also in everyday life, such as in advance defining how many months one should tolerate being unhappy at a new job.

The balance between grit and quit is a delicate one that needs to be evaluated from one situation to the next. The strategies favoring staying or exploring is a research topic in game theory. One key factor is the amount of certainty we have about the future outcome of a particular choice. More uncertainty about the right path forward favors explorative behavior, such as trial and error, and tips the balance in favor of quitting more often.

But some outcomes are better known than others. We can be pretty sure that the effort of learning to read or mastering mathematics will pay off. It is also likely that completing high school is a good idea. So, in the context of learning, and probably also in cognitive training, the balance should definitely tip in favor of grit.

1. Federico Nemmi, Elin Helander, Ola Helenius, Rita Almeida, Martin Hassler, Pekka Räsänen, Torkel Klingberg (2016) Behavior and neuroimaging at baseline predict individual response to combined mathematical and working memory training in children. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 20 , pp. 43–51, 2016."Should I stay or should I go" is one of life's eternal questions.

Torkel Klingberg

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

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