Traffic on a rainy motorway with a sign indicating a stranded vehicle and a 40 mph speed limit.

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Why small annoyances can harm us more than big disruptions

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty

by Shayla Love + BIO





A largely forgotten psychological concept helps explain the insidiousness of minor problems – and what to do about it

Have you ever had that feeling in life when you pause to look around, and realise you don’t like what you see? Maybe you’ve been working in a vacuous job for years, renting in a noisy neighbourhood, or recognise that your romantic partnership has been devoid of connection for some time. How did I find myself here, you might wonder, how have I let this discontent last for so long? It’s as if you got stuck or complacent to such an extent that you’ve ended up languishing in a situation that you’re not happy in, sometimes for years. Why didn’t you act?

There’s a somewhat forgotten idea from psychology that can help explain why. It’s called the region-beta paradox, and it describes a common error people can make in predicting how long distress will last in response to a scenario. Everyone puts up with mild annoyances each day whether it be at your job, with your family, your habits, your living environment or your body. You brush them off, thinking: this isn’t so bad, so it can’t affect me for very long. I’m not going to move apartments over a lack of natural light, or quit my job because my boss sends emails Friday nights at 10 pm. These complaints are minor, how much distress could they cause me over time? It’s not like my apartment has bed bugs, or my boss screams at me.

These situations aren’t that bad, and so you don’t do anything about them, whether it be to take action or kickstart psychological processes to cope. This is the ‘beta region’ – the no-man’s land for circumstances that don’t prompt action or response (the terminology comes from different regions on a graph that describes the phenomenon). The paradox is that these more mild discomforts or relationships can end up lasting much longer and cause you more upset or damage than a situation, person or event that is more acutely upsetting, but which prompts you to take action to resolve it, so that the distress doesn’t last.

Here’s another example. Imagine you shatter your knee, compared with just bruising it and injuring it slightly. The more serious injury will last longer than the minor one, right? Not necessarily. If you shatter your knee, you have little choice but to go to the doctor, schedule surgery, and do physical therapy. You could be back to running marathons in a relatively short amount of time. In contrast, you might easily ignore your bruised knee and never attend to the underlying minor damage – maybe you live for years with a niggling pain, even a limp.

‘The paradoxical consequence is that people may sometimes recover more quickly from truly distressing experiences than from slightly distressing ones,’ write the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his co-authors in their paper defining the region-beta paradox, titled ‘The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad’ (2004). They went on: ‘When Ovid wrote two millennia ago that “small things affect small minds”, he was apparently unaware that when small things fail to trigger one’s defences, they may attain a peculiar longevity that even great minds do not anticipate.’

Paradoxically, milder challenges can go unaddressed and cause more bother over the longer term

The region-beta paradox hasn’t received much attention since, but it reveals an important cognitive bias that many of us fall prey to when making decisions – mistakenly thinking that more intense states will always last longer than mild ones. Becoming aware of the paradox reveals that this isn’t always the case, and could help you make better choices so that the little things don’t haunt you for an unusually long time.

Gilbert proposed that a similar principle applies beyond our actions, to the way we respond emotionally to challenges of different intensities in everyday life. We all have psychological processes to help us attenuate distress, he explained, but it can require distress of sufficient intensity to trigger these defences, which paradoxically can lead to milder challenges going unaddressed and causing more bother over the longer term.

In an example from Gilbert: if a person is told she has to give up a filing cabinet in her office or move to a smaller office in the basement, she may respond to the larger – more distressing – move with comforting thoughts, such as appreciating how she’ll be closer to the coffee machine, or closer to her friend’s office (thus negating her distress). In contrast, losing the storage and stacking up all her papers on the floor may not be a big enough event to trigger similar mental soothing or placation. So, even though losing her filing cabinet is objectively a smaller inconvenience, the annoyance it causes could continue long after the distress from moving to another office has passed.

A study from 2000 provides another example of this principle. Researchers found that people were more worried about skipping out on medical procedures that they expected to be very painful, compared with procedures they expected to be only slightly painful. Because of this, they set up cancellation fees or told their friends to hold them accountable for the more painful procedures. Commenting on this study, Gilbert and his co-authors wrote: ‘The ironic consequence is that people are ultimately more likely to chicken out of slightly painful than extremely painful procedures.’

Studies from Gilbert’s paper demonstrate that most people fail to anticipate these paradoxical effects. In one experiment, college students were asked to imagine a number of distressing situations, such as: being kindly rejected when asking someone out; a roommate borrowing shoes without asking; an old friend joining a neo-Nazi group; or a best friend getting together with their ex. The participants predicted how intense they would feel when these events first occurred, and were then asked how they would feel a week later. The more intensely they rated each scenario, the longer they thought their feelings would last. They failed to account for the fact that more intense distress can also fade more when it prompts a protective psychological response or behaviour.

‘A lifetime of things being a little bit crappy can be worse than an afternoon of things being agonising’

Adam Mastroianni, a social psychologist and author of the blog Experimental History, first heard about the region-beta paradox because Gilbert was his PhD advisor at Harvard. ‘I was sitting in Gilbert’s office, and he was telling me about it,’ Mastroianni says. ‘I thought, oh that has the shape of a really beautiful idea because you can immediately seize upon how this happens in life all the time.’

Once you become aware of the paradox, you can see it play out everywhere. Say your friend has five drinks, so you take away their keys and tell them to take a taxi home. Yet if they have just three glasses, you don’t act and so they take a risky drive home. Or you’re faced with the prospect of a large dessert, but it activates thoughts about eating healthily so you abstain, whereas a bowl of tiny sweets doesn’t trigger the same thought processes, so you nibble away unchecked, ultimately leading to a larger sugar intake.

‘The ease with which examples such as these are generated highlights the ubiquity of the region-β paradox in everyday life,’ Gilbert and his co-authors wrote, ‘as well as the potential dangers of ignoring it.’

You can probably think of your own examples where, in the longer term, you are worse off because you didn’t react. ‘Everyday, it’s a little bit crappy,’ Mastroianni says. ‘And a lifetime of things being a little bit crappy can add up to being worse than an afternoon of things being agonising.’

There are other findings from the field of decision-making that are not exactly about the region-beta paradox, but help to explain why we don’t respond to mild discomfort, says Carlos Alós-Ferrer, a researcher in microeconomics, psychology and decision neuroscience at Lancaster University Management School in the UK.

Alós-Ferrer is reminded of decision inertia, or the tendency to continue to do nothing because not acting doesn’t incur any immediate costs. ‘When in doubt, do nothing would lead to the same kind of phenomenon that the region-beta paradox speaks about in terms of inaction,’ Alós-Ferrer says. This would be the assumption that staying at your job or staying in the apartment you mildly don’t like will be less costly than making a more drastic choice.

This is compounded by a ‘status quo bias’. People often discount the future, and prioritise the present. Doing something, such as changing your job or relationship, has an immediate cost, and the benefits of making the change are located far off, in the future. The risk of a painful breakup can act as a powerful deterrent in the moment, compared with the distant promise of a future where you’re single and content, or in a new, more functional relationship.

It’s worth fighting the desire to react intuitively, to always respond mildly to mild situations

‘Not only that, it’s uncertain,’ Alós-Ferrer says. ‘Present bias is going to make you discount the [future] benefits much more than you should, and then you are going to end up not doing anything.’

So what should you do if you think you have found yourself in region beta? ‘For many people, inertia and present bias are going to combine to create inaction,’ Alós-Ferrer says.

He recommends that in some cases it’s worth trying to fight the desire to react intuitively, to always respond mildly to mild situations. One way to do this is to try to make the future consequences more explicit to yourself by imagining them to be as important as what’s happening in the present. Ask yourself: could the issues you have with your job, relationships, commute or living arrangements persist for the next decade? How would that make you feel? Take time to list out the potential benefits of making a change, even if it feels more disruptive than letting things stay as they are.

The region-beta paradox can also provide a more optimistic way to look at some of life’s bigger upsets, layoffs, breakups, injuries and more. If you have a strong negative experience now that prompts you to take action, the amount of suffering you experience may be less in the longer run than something less extreme that lingered for years.

‘If a good friend does something that makes us really angry, we usually confront them about it and, in many cases, that confrontation strengthens and improves, and maybe even saves, the relationship,’ Gilbert says.

Mastroianni has called the paradox one of the ‘underrated ideas in psychology’, not necessarily because it has a slew of studies to back it up, but because it elegantly summarises circumstances we have all been in. The region-beta paradox and similar concepts from psychology can act like modern-day allegories or Aesop’s fables that have morals attached to them. ‘It requires a certain level of wisdom to apply these things,’ he says.

None of this means you should jump away from your current situation at the first sign of discomfort. No one would have relationships or jobs if that were the case. Not every small annoying event will, in the long run, accrue more harm – but there’s wisdom in recognising that some might. Every person’s region beta will be different. The paradox doesn’t suggest a right threshold for action but encourages you to pay attention to the places in your life where you’re tolerating things that ‘aren’t so bad’.





11 June 2024