Add & Subtract - Region-Beta Paradox

Sep 30, 2023

This week we explore Region-Beta Paradox


“The region-beta paradox is the phenomenon that people can sometimes recover more quickly from more distressing experiences than from less distressing ones” Wikipedia

The term comes from research that tested whether people chose to walk or ride a bike. For shorter distances less than a mile (in region alpha), people prefer to walk than ride a bike, even though it took much longer. Only when facing region-beta distances would people hop on their bikes.

Low-level upset does not motivate us to take action. Intense suffering does. The theory posits that our psychological defense mechanisms cut in when distress levels are sufficient. People have been seen to deal better with a terrorist attack than less stressful problems.

Our psychology sets us up to stay in moderately bad jobs, relationships, experiences. Paradoxically, if they were worse, we would do something about it! More intense pain, unhappiness and suffering serves to mobilise our system into action.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who introduced the concept of RBP:

“A trick knee hurts longer than a shattered patella because the latter injury exceeds the critical threshold for pain and thereby triggers the very processes that attenuate it”


We are wired to tolerate and adapt to moderately unpleasant situations. We tend to stay in a job, relationship or experience that is not great but okay enough to put up with. Like frogs slowly boiling to death in a low-heated pot, we can let things be bad and slowly get worse without responding adequately.

Relationship expert John Gottman noticed that, “more marriages die from ice than fire”.

How easily we can get stuck in places, and look back years later with regret! Think too of social changes, such as the gradual erosion of free speech and other civil rights over recent years. Death by a thousand cuts!

Our inertia comes from this paradox, that we are good at putting up with a certain amount of pain. Without this capacity, humans would not have survived the daily ordeals of primitive life. Now we live more comfortable and less threatening lives, we are rarely prompted into action. Fewer Woolly Mammoths to deal with.

With this knowledge, we can ramp up our displeasure at times, to tip us into doing something. To step up, draw the line, call it out and make changes. To prod ourselves into going for something better right now.

"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes” Oscar Wilde

Big thank you to Simon S. for putting me onto this concept. May understanding this paradox help prompt us all into more action!

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