The biology of quitting: when you should hold ’em and when you should fold ’em

April 20, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Someone called this Big Think piece to my attention because some quotes from me are in it. And they are, but that’s not the important part, which is the evolutionary biology of giving up, and I guess I’m the Expert Evolutionist in this take.  The piece is by Julia Keller, a prolific author and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2004, and this is an excerpt from her new book  Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free. which came out April 18.

Although I had some association with Julia when she wrote for the Chicago Tribune (I think she helped me get a free-speech op-ed published), I don’t remember even speaking to her on this topic, but it must have been quite a while back. At any rate, I certainly want to be set free from my maladaptive compulsions, which include persisting when I should give up, so I’ll be reading her book.

Click on the screenshot to read:

The science involved is largely evolutionary: it pays you to give up when you leave more offspring by quitting than by persisting. Or to couch it more accurately, genes that enable you to assess a situation (consciously or not) and give up at the right point—right before the relative reproductive gain from persisting turns into a relative loss compared to other gene forms affecting quitting—will come to dominate over the “nevertheless she persisted” genes.  Keller engages the reader by drawing at the outset a comparison between Simone Biles stopping her gymnastic performance in the 2021 Tokyo games, and, on the other hand, a honeybee deciding whether or not to sting a potential predator of the nest.

If the bee does sting, she invariably dies (her innards are ripped out with the sting), and can no longer protect the nest. But if that suicidal act drives away a potential predator, copies of the “sting now” gene are saved in all the other nest’s workers, who are her half sisters. (And of course they’re saved in her mother—the queen, the only female who can pass on her genes.) If a worker doesn’t sting, every copy of that gene might be lost if the nest is destroyed, for if the nest goes, so goes the queen, and every gene is lost.  On the other hand, a potential predator might not actually prey on a nest, so why give up your life if it has no result? You have to know when stinging is liable to pay off and when it isn’t.

Inexorably, natural selection will preserve genes that succeed in this reproductive calculus by promoting stinging at the right time and place—or, on the other hand refraining from stinging if it’s liable to have no effect on colony (ergo queen) survival.  And in fact, as you see below, honeybees, while they surely don’t consciously do this calculus, they behave as if they do, and they do it correctly.  Often natural selection favors animals making “decisions” that cannot be conscious, but have been molded by selection to look as if they were conscious. 

As for Simone Biles, well, you can read about her. Her decision was clearly a conscious one, but also bred in us by selection—selection to avoid damaging our bodies, which of course can severely limit our chance to pass on our genes. This is why we usually flee danger when there is nothing to gain by meeting it. (She did have something to gain—gold medals—which is why she’s like the bees.)

Why do young men street race their cars on the street, a dangerous practice? What do they have to gain? Well, risk-taking is particularly prevalent in postpubescent males compared to females, and I bet you can guess why.

I’ll first be a bit self aggrandizing and show how I’m quoted on evolution, and then get to the very cool bee story. It’s a short piece, and you might think of other “quitting vs. non quitting” behaviors of animals that could have evolved. (Hint: one involves cat domestication.)

“Perseverance, in a biological sense, doesn’t make sense unless it’s working.”

That’s Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, one of the top evolutionary biologists of his generation. [JAC: a BIT overstated, but I appreciate it.] I’ve called Coyne to ask him about animals and quitting. I want to know why human beings tend to adhere to the Gospel of Grit—while other creatures on this magnificently diverse earth of ours follow a different strategy. Their lives are marked by purposeful halts, fortuitous side steps, canny retreats, nick‑of‑time recalculations, wily workarounds, and deliberate do‑overs, not to mention loops, pivots, and complete reversals.

Other animals, that is, quit on a regular basis. And they don’t obsess about it, either.

In the wild, Coyne points out, perseverance has no special status. Animals do what they do because it furthers their agenda: to last long enough to reproduce, ensuring the continuation of their genetic material.

We’re animals, too, of course. And despite all the complex wonders that human beings have created—from Audis to algebra, from hot-fudge sundaes to haiku, from suspension bridges to Bridgerton—at bottom our instincts are always goading us toward the same basic, no‑nonsense goal: to stick around so that we can pass along little copies of ourselves. [JAC: note how this is an individual-centric view rather than the correct gene-centric one, but it’s good enough.] It’s axiomatic: the best way to survive is to give up on whatever’s not contributing to survival. To waste as few resources as possible on the ineffective. “Human behavior has been molded to help us obtain a favorable outcome,” Coyne tells me. We go for what works. We’re biased toward results. Yet somewhere between the impulse to follow what strikes us as the most promising path—which means quitting an unpromising path—and the simple act of giving up, something often gets in the way. And that’s the mystery that intrigues me: When quitting is the right thing to do, why don’t we always do it?

Well, who ever said that every aspect of human behavior was molded by natural selection? Please don’t think that I was implying that it was, as we have a cultural veneer on top of the behaviors conditioned by our genes. In this piece Keller doesn’t get to the subject of why we don’t quit when we should. I’m sure that’s in the book.

Now the very cool bee story:

Justin O. Schmidt is a renowned entomologist and author of The Sting of the Wild, a nifty book about a nasty thing: stinging insects. Living creatures, he tells me, echoing Coyne, have two goals, and those goals are rock-bottom rudimentary: “To eat and not be eaten.” If something’s not working, an animal stops doing it—and with a notable absence of fuss or excuse-making. . . .

. . . For a honeybee, the drive to survive carries within it the commitment to make sure there will be more honeybees. And so she defends her colony with reckless abandon. When a honeybee stings a potential predator, she dies, because the sting eviscerates her. (Only the females sting.) Given those odds—a 100 percent mortality rate after stinging—what honeybee in her right mind would make the decision to sting if it didn’t bring some benefit?

That’s why, Schmidt explains to me from his lab in Tucson, sometimes she stands down. When a creature that may pose a threat approaches the colony, the honeybee might very well not sting. She chooses, in effect, to quit—to not take the next step and rush forward to defend the nest, at the cost of her life.

His experiments, the results of which he published in 2020 in Insectes Sociaux, an international scientific journal focusing on social insects such as bees, ants, and wasps, reveal that honeybees make a calculation on the fly, as it were. They decide if a predator is close enough to the colony to be a legitimate threat and, further, if the colony has enough reproductive potential at that point to warrant her ultimate sacrifice. If the moment meets those criteria—genuine peril (check), fertile colony (check)—the honeybees are fierce fighters, happy to perish for the greater good.

But if not… well, no. They don’t engage. “Bees must make life‑or‑death decisions based on risk-benefit evaluations,” Schmidt tells me. Like a gymnast facing a dizzyingly difficult maneuver that could prove to be lethal, they weigh the danger of their next move against what’s at stake, measuring the imminent peril against the chances of success and the potential reward. They calculate odds.

And if the ratio doesn’t make sense, they quit.

That’s a bit oversimplified, for the calculus is not only unconscious (I doubt bees can weigh threats this way), but the decision capability has been molded by competition over evolutionary time between different forms of genes with different propensities to sting or give up. Further, individual worker bees are sterile, and so what’s at stake is the number of gene copies in the nest as a whole—and especially in the queen. The asymmetrical relatedness between the queen, her workers, and their useless drone brothers (produced by unfertilized eggs) makes the calculus especially complicated.

On the other hand, explaining the gene calculus to lay readers is hard, and it might be better to read the seminal work on how this all operates: Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. 

Here’s Schmidt’s short paper (click to read; if it’s paywalled, ask for a copy). He died just this February.

18 thoughts on “The biology of quitting: when you should hold ’em and when you should fold ’em

  1. Cultural evolution seems important here too, at least in humans. If persistence is a widely admired personality trait, it will be emulated by others, and can spread even in the face of the low adaptive or economic value of whatever specific thing someone is persisting at.

    1. Just what I was thinking. Persistence gives us status: people admire those hero’s who Don’t Give Up because of our tendency to remember the hits (a winner!) and forget the misses (who?) We seem to carry around a little audience in our head telling us to not be a loser; it stands in for the peer group. High status is a good reproductive strategy for our genes.

    2. I don’t think we need cultural evolution as an explanation – it may help reify and reinforce the concept of the hero who pursues his aims to the end, but why would that concept be such a worthwhile meme if it didn’t speak to something in human psychology?

      So under what conditions would persistence be seen as intrinsically good? I think the necessary and sufficient ingredients are an ability to remember another individual’s past actions, and preferably a means to communicate to others about other individuals’ character. Basically, if you can get a reputation for being persistent, that can save you a lot of trouble in the long run, and make it more appealing for others to cooperate with you.
      It’s related to the old notion of “honor” – if you prove enough times that you’re willing to stand up for yourself and make someone who messes with you pay dearly, even at a high price for yourself, and even if you don’t “win”, others will become less willing to mess with you.
      Also, if you prove enough times that you help someone accomplish something, even when the going gets tought, they will ask you to help out again next time and hopefully share the spoils of the joint efforts.

      Obviously, this doesn’t work in species where individuals don’t remember other individuals, and it doesn’t work if the price of failure is certain death.

  2. This is the most though-provoking thing I’ve read on the Internet this year.

    To chime in with Susan Harrison, I wonder if persistence is “allowed” because in advanced cultures the cost of failure in low in most ordinary endeavours. We’re not going up alone against a pack of sabre-tooth cats, even though the office seems that way sometimes. Failure can be seen as the cost of mastery, which can have a large payoff. The skilled hunter has apprenticed with groups of masters who showed him the ropes where his unsuccessful spear throws wouldn’t imperil him. He eventually got good at it or was assigned by the tribe to butchering duties and told to stop persisting because he was in the way.

    I can learn through sustained persistence to play a difficult piano passage well enough to make it worth the effort to me, even if a listener might wonder why I bothered. “Follow your dream” is not generally good advice,* though, especially since the advice usually comes from someone who did succeed—an example of survivorship bias. We don’t admire persistence when it clearly leads to failure and ruin with no insight on the part of the failer.
    * Better advice is to find something you can get good enough at to earn a living from.

  3. As your headline more-or-less alludes, no-limit poker is the equivalent of natural selection for a certain type of cultural evolution. As Gretchen Mol repeats back to Matt Damon (a gambler who’s trying to go straight by enrolling in law school) after dumping him when she finds out he’s back to his gambling ways in Rounders: Rule #1 is fold your hand as soon as you realize you’re holding a loser.

    There’s a reason why you don’t find players who indulge the sunk-cost fallacy sitting at the final table at the World Series of Poker.

    1. There’s plenty of poker players who have won on the river or with a bluff.
      Almost like it’s a game based on luck, and not cultural evolution.

      1. Sure, it’s possible to suck out a winner on the river on pure luck alone (and bluffing is part of the game, which is why, as having a Rule #1 suggests, there is more than just one rule). But why do you suppose it is that the same faces keep showing up at the final table at WSOP events?

        No-limit Texas Hold ‘Em is a game of skill and judgment. Otherwise anybody could put up the buy-in fee for a tournament and have an equal chance of winning.

        Been that way since ol’ Benny Binion held the first tournament at the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas in 1970.

  4. Someone SHOULD have told that bugger Adolf to give up. ME against the rest, HELL yeah! Risk aversion and probability was not a salient trait in the 30’s… or 2023. Ukraine is like that bee! one violent cultural ideology trying to extinguish one culture of relative peace.
    Sometimes never giving up seems like lunacy and sometimes a wonder in determination.
    I digress, this is a great post and R Dawkins does explain it well. For me, it is one of the highlights of “The Selfish Gene”.

  5. In honeybees, there is genetic variation in the quitting (or not attacking) threshold. Compared to our domesticated bees, the Africanized honeybees don’t seem to know when to quit!

  6. For those interested, there’s a whole literature on how cultural ‘memes’ can evolve through selective imitation, in a parallel way to natural selection, and sometimes even leading to the spread of behaviors that are bad for Darwinian fitness (think martyrdom, priestly celibacy, Tide Pod challenges…). I think Dawkins may have started this idea, and Feldman & Cavalli-Sforza and Richerson & Boyd have written a lot about it. Fun stuff!

  7. I didn’t realise female gymnasts were martyring themselves by stinging audiences members for getting too close to the pommel horse.
    Sounds like this book will be self help mumbo jumbo.

  8. I’ve quit a couple of times. It was always obvious to me that I was failing and that quitting was the right solution. But it always took longer than it should have. In other words, I knew that I was failing long before I actually quit.

    This is because of human social custom. Quitting can be humiliating (actually, it was always a huge relief), and I factored potential humiliation into the decision (it didn’t happen). I was concerned for how quitting might influence my reputation (which wasn’t harmed in any way that mattered). Since, in humans like me, my ability to my pass genes on to the next generation depends on what others think or me as well as what I can accomplish independently of others, my calculus involved both factors. I think that people persist at hopeless tasks longer than they should in part because they deeply care about what the rest of the world thinks—and they think that what the rest of the world thinks matters.

    In the end, I will leave no genes of my own to the next generation (although I may leave some indirectly by helping my relatives along the way). Quit with pride! It’s OK.

  9. I think we should draw a distinction between tasks which are impossible, and those that are “nearly” impossible.
    In the first category, I might come up with an example like breaking through a steel bank vault door by banging your head against it.
    In the second category lie a bunch of human athletic, artistic, and technical achievements, which seemed impossible until suddenly they weren’t. I was sort of raised to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing with obsessive and fanatical devotion. That often means failing a whole bunch of times in the process.
    From an evolutionary standpoint, from my own short pondering, it would seem that a society of persistent people is more likely to reach the boundaries of human achievement than one where people give up more easily. Even identifying those boundaries requires a great deal of persistence.

    Overall, the article has some points I agree with, but seems to sort of follow the current trend of consoling and empowering low achievers, as well as discrediting traditional virtues.

  10. “Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free.”

    [ reads post ]

    It is not clear to me if the author is aware of the appeal to Nature (covered here very well – and I am certain PCC(E)’s quotes would be clear on that point).

  11. Presumably by not quitting, one is signalling to others in the group that one is a reliable ally who will not “defect” (in the Prisoner’s Dilemma sense). Thus, one is enduring hardship now to foster future alliances and cooperation.

    1. If quitting/defection can be done in secret, while still giving the illusion of cooperative persistence, one can reap the benefits of quitting and still free-ride on the successful efforts of the persisters and hardship-bearers. This is particularly effective if the persisters daren’t quit themselves for fear of heavy loss and so have to connive at some free-riders rather than joining them. Even rooting them out and ostracizing them may detract from the task at hand.

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