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Photo Illustrations by Brittany Falussy

The science of settling

What causes a person to upgrade their life circumstance?

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Change is hard. So hard, in fact, that many of us will stick with a choice we’ve already made — whether it’s a relationship, a Sunday-night movie, or a cellular provider — even if we know it’s not working out. Sound fair to you? It isn’t, but it’s such a common phenomenon that it even has a name: the sunk-cost fallacy.

Coined by a behavioral economist, the term refers to people’s tendency to continue investing time, effort, or money into something simply because they’ve already invested time, effort, or money into it, regardless of whether they’d be better off upgrading to something (or someone) new. This idea of “sunk time” helps explain why so many people settle into routines or plans that don’t quite meet their needs, and why UScellular wants to be clear about why it’s worth the switch.

It also factors into some of the questionable choices we make in our romantic relationships. The sunk-cost fallacy may be why, for instance, your friend is still dating the person she swiped right on this spring, even though the spark has fizzled since they finally went on their in-person date, and why you stuck it out with your college girlfriend a full year after it became clear you wouldn’t work in the real world.

No one likes to feel like they wasted their time — and yet, rationally, we know that putting even more time into a doomed relationship won’t help us reclaim what’s already past. Unless you happen to have a time machine handy, those months or years are gone. But that also means what really counts is what you choose to do next.

Putting ‘future you’ first

Psychologists talk about smart decision-making as prioritizing “future utility” and “future payoff” — as in, your best choices work toward the interests of an imagined future “you” rather than your past or present self. Staying coupled up with someone out of obligation long after the relationship’s “best before” date has passed? That’s one way to ensure you feel just as stuck down the line as you do today.

Making the tough decision to leave, on the other hand? It may not be comfortable, especially at first, but it gives you the opportunity to go after something better. And doesn’t your future self deserve that?

Our happiness is far more important than the time we’ve already invested in something, and yet it’s easy to put the latter first. Most of us are guilty of doing it at some point: It’s thinking, “We can’t give up now — it’s been five years!” or “What about everything we gave up to try to make it work?” or “If we break up, I might wish I did it sooner.” It’s refusing to admit your choices so far may not have been the best ones, after all.

Whatever the case, the result is the same: settling for an unfulfilling relationship just because it’s the one you’re already in.

The longer the history, the harder the break

Research has shown that the length of time people are willing to stick with an unhappy relationship is correlated with how long that relationship has already been. In one study, psychologists at the University of Minho in Portugal presented participants with two scenarios. In one, they asked participants how long they would stay in a ten-year marriage that has become increasingly acrimonious; in the other, the toxic marriage was only a year old.

Both groups said they would give the relationship some time to (hopefully) improve, but the amount they agreed to spend varied significantly. Those in the one-year group said they would give the marriage 289 days, while the ten-year group said they would invest 583 days. According to the terms of the experiment, that’s nearly a whole extra year of one’s life spent in an unhappy relationship — for the simple fact that there’s a longer history there.

Again: That doesn’t sound very fair, does it?

It’s worth the switch

Focusing on what you can gain in the time ahead of you instead of what you may have lost in the time you can’t get back is, as most psychologists will tell you, the best way to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy. So while it may feel like you’re quitting when the going gets tough, leaving an unhealthy relationship can be more like investing in your future happiness.

Just like you don’t have to repeat your past romantic decisions, you don’t have to stay with the same cellular provider. Today, our phones are practically a second life partner: In 2019, 92% of mobile internet users reported going online daily, and 32% said they went online almost constantly. And yet, according to UScellular, people often stick with their carrier even when the relationship disappoints.

Breaking up is hard to do — no one will deny that — but it’s also a chance to find something great instead of doubling down on the bad. Go for the upgrade, and your future will thank you.

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