The Psychology of Loyalty

Loyalty is defined by being OK with things not being OK. Decision theorists, who analyze data for a living, call it a paradoxical move, hurting today to feel better tomorrow, taking a disadvantage today for a possible advantage tomorrow–delayed gratification, but more accurately delayed uncertain gratification, a leap of faith. And while animals make such paradoxical moves by instinct, we humans have much more leeway in choosing our paradoxical moves. However, the mental flexibility that’s involved in loyalty, is defined by our frontal lobes. It’s the highest form of intellectual functioning.

We have language which enables us to imagine future satisfaction, a vision of our goals achieved. For example, you might picture your future as a lawyer, entrepreneur, or doctor, and so decide to borrow money and stay up all hours studying for exams and deadlines, when you don’t want to. You’re loyal to your goal.

Alan Turing, the inventor of the digital computer, called it the “halting problem”. Essentially: Programming a computer to search for a pattern in a string of seemingly random numbers, you have to also program in when the computer should halt the search, in effect giving up on finding the pattern. You can call this Turing’s Blurring Anxiety. When you’re trying to accomplish something, unless and until it is accomplished, you won’t know whether it can’t be accomplished or just hasn’t been accomplished yet. The distinction between those two outcomes is blurred.

In everyday life, Turing’s halting problem could be called the loyalty problem. Loyalty to a person, a project, a task, or a belief is a dogged and deliberate commitment. In essence, loyalty is one of the ultimate cognitive measures of executive functioning. Stick-to-it-iveness. 

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