Staying With the The Devil You Know

The Monty Hall problem is a famous puzzle in mathematics. In this dilemma, a contestant on a gameshow is attempting to correctly choose the one door out of of three that hides a prize. The contestant selects door and does not open it. The host then opens door three, revealing that there is no prize. The player is then given the option to stick with their initial choice or switch to the second door.

Most people intuitively feel that remaining with the initial choice of door one is advantageous or that the contestant now has an equal chance with either door one or two. Mathematically, however, the player has a better opportunity of winning (67% chance) if they change their selection.

When this solution was first published, the outcry was enormous, well beyond what would be expected for a math-related article. So why were people so resistant to the idea of letting go and taking their chances on something new?

Once people make a decision or arrive at a solution, they take on a sense of ownership of that idea. And once they possess it, they become wary of letting it go. In a sense, releasing the choice becomes a loss. And we often act to avoid loss.

The first choice for the contestant is knee-jerk. At that point, all of the doors have an equal chance of containing the prize. But once the second choice is offered, the situation has changed. Inaction is tempting both because it needs no overcoming of inertia and accepting a loss due to a failure to act is easier than accepting a loss that arises directly from an action.

And then of course, there’s ego that has a difficult time admitting that maybe the first choice wasn’t the right pick after all.

And all of this simply to avoid leaving behind a door that may not even contain a prize.

We face a version of this dilemma in life. Except then, we know what is behind the door. And yet sometimes we struggle to choose another option even when we know that what lies behind the door we picked is certainly no prize.

I think we’ve all chosen the devil we know at times. Maybe you stayed in a job too long that wasn’t a good fit. Perhaps you tolerated an abusive situation after the pattern became clear. Or possibly you have clung to a self-narrative long past its expiration date.

We justify our decision to stay with the status quo –

“At least I know what to expect.”

“I know how to navigate this situation and I don’t now how to do the other.”

“Maybe this is the best I can do.”

“I still have hope that this situation can change.”

It;s scary to leave what you know. It’s hard to admit that maybe your first choice wasn’t such a good one. It’s so hard to let go of one selection when you don’t yet know where the other will lead.

But if you know that the door you chose isn’t right for you, maybe it’s time to select another. After all, that one might just hide the prize you’ve been looking for.

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