In Defense of (Sometimes) Giving Up

By
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Photo: Corbis

The quote “Never, never, never give up” — usually, if mostly erroneously, attributed to Winston Churchill — is the kind of inspirational motto that certain kinds of people really like to post on sites like Instagram and Pinterest, and it’s easy to imagine why. Perseverance is something to aspire to; after all, tenacious types are the ones who ultimately tend to get things done.

Likewise, in the past decade or so, many social psychologists have been smitten with perseverance, though their term for it is grit, defined in a landmark 2007 paper by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and others as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work on grit, which has demonstrated the clear benefits of having a determined nature. For example, grittier individuals are more likely to get (and stay) married, complete intense Army training, graduate, and remain employed as compared to their flakier peers. Schools across the country have taken this notion and run with it, with many attempting to teach this mystical “grit” thing to their students, though Duckworth has explained that even she does not yet know whether or how it even can be taught. 

Besides, obviously, there are also times in life when giving up and changing course is the wisest option. These are moments, unfortunately, that grittier individuals may not be so great at spotting, argue researchers from the University of Southern California and Northwestern University. (This, incidentally, is something Duckworth, too, has considered but has not yet tested empirically.) In a new paper, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, these researchers argue that there are times a tenacious spirit can backfire, causing people to stubbornly dig in their heels even when doing so ends up costing them. 

To test this, the researchers did three experiments, involving a grand total of more than 1,300 participants. In one of those experiments, they first gave about 400 students a quiz to measure their level of grit; you can take a version of this for yourself right here if you like. (I quit after just two questions, which, I think, gives me my answer right there.) After that, the students were given 20 minutes to solve 37 anagrams; each correct answer would enter them into a $100 lottery, providing motivation to power through as many easy word puzzles as they could. But there was a trick; there’s always a trick with these things. Sixteen of the anagrams were unsolvable — so what would the grittier individuals do when they came across those? 

Pull their own hair out until they solved them, basically, was the answer. The students who scored higher on the grit survey also tended to answer fewer questions overall than the less tenacious ones. Instead of skipping ahead to easier puzzles, the more persistent people kept at the unsolvable anagrams, even though they knew it was costing them money to do so. Other experiments recounted in the paper showed that when grittier people knew they were going to lose, they responded by working that much harder, even when given the option to quit while they were still somewhat ahead. 

Perseverance can lead to great things; blind perseverance that goes against good judgment, less so. Anyway, that Churchill quote referenced above? Turns out the words have been mangled a bit with time. According to the Churchill Centre, a 50-year-old organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the famous prime minister, the real quote is this: “Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Grit can be a wonderfully useful quality, but sometimes knowing when to pack it in is just good sense.