Throughout the self-help literature it seems like everyone is constantly advising that we be as persistent as possible and never give up. The idea is that if you don’t give up on your dreams, then you’ll keep trying and as such, keep creating new opportunities to succeed. Give up at the first sight of trouble though and you’ll never know if you could have won if you’d just held on a little longer…
It’s all about statistics and the more you try, the more likely you are to succeed.
It all sounds very nice and for the most part there’s a lot of truth in it. That said though, you also need to be aware that sometimes it’s not that straightforward.
The problem is what’s known as ‘gambler’s fallacy’ which is a ‘cognitive bias’ that causes us to sometimes misinterpret statistics. On the odd occasion where persistence isn’t a benefit, this fallacy can lead us to believe that it is anyway.
What is Gambler’s Fallacy?
A cognitive bias is a flaw in our thinking. It is any way in which we, as humans, are consistently illogical. An example is our ‘confirmation bias’ which is essentially a flaw that causes us to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs over information that could potentially contradict it.
Confirmation bias is not one that is particularly useful here but ‘gambler’s fallacy’ is a cognitive bias that can greatly affect our ability to determine whether or not we should continue trying the same thing.
That’s because gambler’s fallacy is a fallacy about odds. It is the belief that the attempts we have made before will necessarily effect the results we have next.
For instance, if you have thrown heads twenty times in a row, then the gambler’s fallacy would tell you that the next time you flip a coin it must be tails. This is the reason that gamblers will often keep on playing even after a string of loses.
The reality though is that the chances of throwing tails is 50% every time. So in other words, you are no more likely to win despite the fact that you have made plenty of attempts otherwise.
So while persistence almost always pays off, examples like this demonstrate to us that they don’t always. If what you’re being persistent at is entirely based on luck and there’s the chance of a negative outcome each time it goes wrong… then you’re actually better advised to not keep trying.