- An emerging sector of neuroscience research is exploring the decision-making process behind knowing when to quit.
- Animals, including humans, engage in behaviors that promote survival, and they tend to abandon actions that are ineffective or perilous to their existence.
- Strategic quitting, in certain circumstances, can be seen as a crucial survival technique rather than a moral failing, highlighting the importance of assessing risks and potential rewards in decision-making.
How is Simone Biles like a honeybee? That’s not a riddle. Nor is it a trick question. It’s a profoundly serious inquiry, and the answer is found within an emerging field of neuroscience, one that promises to unlock the secrets of how our brains decide if it’s the right time to quit.
As the world’s premier gymnast, Biles has done many amazing things, but it was the thing she did in Tokyo in 2021 that stunned the world like nothing else in her career ever had: she gave up. So what’s the connection between one of the greatest athletes in history and a flying insect?
Stick around. We’ll get to that shortly.
“Perseverance, in a biological sense, doesn’t make sense unless it’s working.”
That’s Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, one of the top evolutionary biologists of his generation. I’ve called Coyne to ask him about animals and quitting. I want to know why human beings tend to adhere to the Gospel of Grit—while other creatures on this magnificently diverse earth of ours follow a different strategy. Their lives are marked by purposeful halts, fortuitous side steps, canny retreats, nick‑of‑time recalculations, wily workarounds, and deliberate do‑overs, not to mention loops, pivots, and complete reversals.
Other animals, that is, quit on a regular basis. And they don’t obsess about it, either.
In the wild, Coyne points out, perseverance has no special status. Animals do what they do because it furthers their agenda: to last long enough to reproduce, ensuring the continuation of their genetic material.
We’re animals, too, of course. And despite all the complex wonders that human beings have created—from Audis to algebra, from hot-fudge sundaes to haiku, from suspension bridges to Bridgerton—at bottom our instincts are always goading us toward the same basic, no‑nonsense goal: to stick around so that we can pass along little copies of ourselves. It’s axiomatic: the best way to survive is to give up on whatever’s not contributing to survival. To waste as few resources as possible on the ineffective. “Human behavior has been molded to help us obtain a favorable outcome,” Coyne tells me. We go for what works. We’re biased toward results. Yet somewhere between the impulse to follow what strikes us as the most promising path—which means quitting an unpromising path—and the simple act of giving up, something often gets in the way. And that’s the mystery that intrigues me: When quitting is the right thing to do, why don’t we always do it?
Consider the finches on the Galápagos Islands, the place that fired the imagination of the young Charles Darwin in 1835 and led to his great breakthrough: the theory of natural selection. A finch’s diet on the island consists mainly of small seeds, some of which are contained inside a sharp-spined weed called a caltrop. Finches use their beaks to remove the seeds from that sheath. And it’s not easy.
As Jonathan Weiner explains in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Beak of the Finch, a persevering finch is a doomed finch. If birds spend too long pecking away at a caltrop with an especially tough hide, they’re in big trouble. “When times are hard,” Weiner writes, “their lives depend on how efficiently they can forage for food—how little energy they can expend in getting how much energy in return.” The finches that know when to give up and move on to another potential food source have a better chance of survival, because they’re not depleting themselves in a quest with diminishing nutritional returns.
Some finches, Weiner writes, lavish up to six minutes on the exasperating task of digging out a single seed. “That’s a long time for a bird to struggle, and most of the time the bird just gives up after a while.” A finch gets it: if at first you don’t succeed, quit. Struggle is nature’s way of hinting that it’s better to move along to more promising mealtime possibilities. If staying alive is the goal, then a task without a quick payoff in the survival sweepstakes is best abandoned. A finch with grit could soon be a deceased one.
Nature has a knack for cutting to the chase. There are no medals or accolades on the line. This is a no‑frills zone. Actions can’t be superfluous—they matter. The organism’s very existence is at stake. Quitting is a skill, a survival technique. It’s not—as we humans sometimes treat it—a moral failing. And resisting the impulse to quit isn’t necessarily brave or noble. It’s nonsensical.
Unlike humans, those other creatures aren’t burdened by some abstract idea of the benefits of perseverance. When a behavior isn’t getting them anywhere—or when it’s proving to be perilous to their continued existence—they stop.
In his marvelous book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake makes a surprising point about slime molds. These organisms may lack a central nervous system and rely instead upon “exploratory networks made of tentacle-like veins,” but “they can still ‘make decisions.’” They do this, he writes, by stopping and then going in another direction. Observed in a petri dish by a team of Japanese scientists, slime molds “compared a range of possible courses of action and can find the shortest point between two points in a labyrinth.”
Slime molds don’t like bright light, and so at the point where researchers placed a light, the organisms quickly changed course. If one road wasn’t right, slime molds gave up on it and chose another.
Pursuing an undesirable path because it’s the gritty thing to do makes no sense—not even for slime mold.
We have to be cautious, of course, about concocting neat parallels between the animal world and our own, and ascribing too many human qualities to animals whose thoughts and emotions are, after all, unknown to us. As Sheldrake, the fungus fancier, writes, “The prevailing scientific view is that it is a mistake to imagine that there is anything deliberate about most nonhuman interactions.” But it’s hard to resist seeing links here and there, as we observe other creatures’ decisions to quit when it benefits them.
Which brings us back to the Biles and the bees.
The finals of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics wasn’t the first time Biles withdrew from a competition. It happened in 2013, at an event in the United States, and at least two other times, too, just as it does for other gymnasts. And while sportswriters have tried, at one time or another during Biles’s spectacular career, to explain what makes her so special—is it her uncanny balance, her extraordinary focus, and poise, her stunning flexibility, her immense core strength, the iron rigor of her training ritual, or as Biles herself speculated to New York in 2021, the gift of “a God-given talent”?—the truly essential element might be none of the above.
All of those attributes are important, yes. But what if the most important one is the ability to quit strategically when the price of not quitting is too high?
That notion goes against virtually everything we’re taught to believe about the resiliency of champions, about their nonstop drive and relentless sense of purpose. But maybe resilience can mean more than just overcoming obstacles, more than just clenching your fists and ignoring pain and powering your way through. Maybe resilience—paradoxically—can also mean the willingness to quit.
At that moment in Tokyo, Biles made a swift, critical assessment: Is this worth what I’m risking? “I was not physically capable,” she later told New York’s Camonghne Felix. She hadn’t felt her usual surge of confidence when she’d arrived in the country five days earlier, she recalled, and her doubts had only intensified as the preliminary events went on.
Her sport is one that involves split-second timing and the perpetual risk of severe injury. Not being able to locate your body in space—the aptly named “twisties”—is terrifying, Biles noted, and the stakes could not be higher: “It’s basically life or death.” For elite athletes like Biles, an understanding of their physical capacity is at the center of everything they undertake. They must be aware, second by second, with pinpoint precision, of their strengths and weaknesses. Thus, for an athlete as in tune with her body as Biles is, the choice was clear. For all the satisfaction that her sport brings her, all the exhilaration, and all that was riding on her participation that day, it wasn’t worth the risk of death or catastrophic injury. The heroic choice, the resilient choice, was not the choice to persevere. It was the choice to quit.
Unlike a honeybee, Biles can’t fly (although if you’ve seen her in action, you know she comes a lot closer than the rest of us ever will). But she does share an important trait with honeybees that may have contributed to her remarkable rise: understanding when to quit. Justin O. Schmidt is a renowned entomologist and author of The Sting of the Wild, a nifty book about a nasty thing: stinging insects. Living creatures, he tells me, echoing Coyne, have two goals, and those goals are rock-bottom rudimentary: “To eat and not be eaten.” If something’s not working, an animal stops doing it—and with a notable absence of fuss or excuse-making.
Human beings are the only creatures who quit and then stew over it, writing self-flagellating social media posts, confessing doubts to friends over cocktails, calling ourselves names as we stare mournfully in the mirror.
For a honeybee, the drive to survive carries within it the commitment to make sure there will be more honeybees. And so she defends her colony with reckless abandon. When a honeybee stings a potential predator, she dies, because the sting eviscerates her. (Only the females sting.) Given those odds—a 100 percent mortality rate after stinging—what honeybee in her right mind would make the decision to sting if it didn’t bring some benefit?
That’s why, Schmidt explains to me from his lab in Tucson, sometimes she stands down. When a creature that may pose a threat approaches the colony, the honeybee might very well not sting. She chooses, in effect, to quit—to not take the next step and rush forward to defend the nest, at the cost of her life.
His experiments, the results of which he published in 2020 in Insectes Sociaux, an international scientific journal focusing on social insects such as bees, ants, and wasps, reveal that honeybees make a calculation on the fly, as it were. They decide if a predator is close enough to the colony to be a legitimate threat and, further, if the colony has enough reproductive potential at that point to warrant her ultimate sacrifice. If the moment meets those criteria—genuine peril (check), fertile colony (check)—the honeybees are fierce fighters, happy to perish for the greater good.
But if not… well, no. They don’t engage. “Bees must make life‑or‑death decisions based on risk-benefit evaluations,” Schmidt tells me. Like a gymnast facing a dizzyingly difficult maneuver that could prove to be lethal, they weigh the danger of their next move against what’s at stake, measuring the imminent peril against the chances of success and the potential reward. They calculate odds.
And if the ratio doesn’t make sense, they quit.