in: Behavior, Character

• Last updated: September 9, 2023

Exit, Voice, Loyalty, Neglect: Why People Leave, Stay, or Try to Burn It All Down

When someone is dissatisfied with a product, group, or relationship, how do they remedy that dissatisfaction? 

A German economist and political scientist, Albert Hirschman, laid out a theory of how people respond to dissatisfaction in his influential treatise Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States

Hirschman observed that people who find themselves in diminishing, less-than-ideal circumstances have three options: 1) leave the declining group, company, or relationship (exit), 2) express discontent to improve the situation (voice), or 3) stay in the organization and passively hope things get better (loyalty). 

Since the initial publication of Exit, Voice, Loyalty in 1970, other social scientists have added a fourth option to Hirschman’s framework: neglect.

Which option a person exercises will depend on many factors, and the path they choose can help reverse, stem, or exacerbate a group’s deterioration. 

The exit, voice, loyalty, neglect (EVLN) framework will help you understand why people stay in or leave a relationship (including friendships), why people stay in or leave a job, why people stay in or leave a church, and many more of life’s interpersonal and institutional dynamics. 

Let’s unpack it. 

Exit, Voice, Loyalty, Neglect

I read Hirschman’s book a few months ago and went on a deep dive into related research that’s been done since it was published. The EVLN framework has become a fundamental mental model in my brain. It’s a decidedly simple paradigm and is something people already intuitively know, but once you see it spelled out explicitly, you start to see it everywhere. 


The exit option is exercised when an individual is dissatisfied with something and decides to quit it altogether. 

You use the exit option all the time as a consumer. If you’re dissatisfied with shaving cream brand A, you stop using it and start using shaving cream brand B. 

You can also use the exit option when dissatisfied with a job, relationship, or group.

Not happy with your job? You can quit it.

Not happy with your relationship? You can break up.

Not happy with the state of your congregation? You can stop going to that church and start going to another.

What’s interesting about the exit option is that it often accelerates decline in groups. According to Hirschman, the people most sensitive to a decrease in quality are typically those with the most resources, skills, and talents that could be used to effectuate improvement. The people who are the least sensitive to quality usually have fewer resources, skills, and talents. When the people who have resources leave, it results in a “brain drain.” With fewer well-resourced members, the quality of the group further declines; it thus has even more trouble attracting new members (especially well-resourced ones); as a result, even more people leave. Things go from bad to worse, and the group or organization enters a death spiral that can be difficult or impossible to recover from.

To illustrate this phenomenon, Hirschman uses the example of parents pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them into private schools. According to Hirschman, affluent parents are much more sensitive to education quality than less affluent parents. It’s not that less affluent parents don’t care about their children’s education; they just don’t have the luxury of being hyper-sensitive to deficits in quality. Because they know that private school isn’t an option for them, they don’t spend as much time wondering if the grass is greener at another school as affluent parents do. 

Because school is a matter of optionality for wealthy parents, they notice perceived flaws in their children’s education more acutely. If these parents become dissatisfied with the education being offered in a public school, they’ll switch their child over to a private school. When these affluent families leave a public school, they take their resources, and their possibly greater propensity to push for improvement, with them. As a result, the struggles of the public school deepen.


Sometimes people find themselves in a situation where they’re dissatisfied with a group or relationship, but they don’t want to leave it. They still see good in it. It’s still working for them on some level, or they see potential for how it could work if things were done differently. They may feel they can do more good being an agent on the inside than being a critic on the outside.

In these cases, people may decide to stay around and exercise the voice option — complaining, offering feedback, and agitating for change to improve things. 

An unhappy employee can talk to his boss about changing the company’s culture. 

An unhappy husband can tell his wife about his concerns for the relationship, or together they can talk to a therapist.

An unhappy customer can contact customer support to raise concerns and seek redress. 

Unhappy parents can talk to their child’s teacher about an issue with their kid or join the PTA to advocate for broader changes. 


While Hirschman clearly defined exit and voice, he was ambiguous about loyalty. It’s one of the biggest criticisms he received for his work. Many social scientists since Hirschman have described loyalty as a “passively positive” response in the face of dissatisfaction. Instead of taking action (exit or voice), the loyal customer, employee, spouse, or church member will stay aboard and not raise a stink, hoping things will get better on their own if they wait long enough.

Take an employee dissatisfied with his job. Maybe he’s decided he can’t quit, and perhaps he’s also decided that voicing his concerns to his boss will only increase the animosity between them. So he chooses to stay with the company, thinking, “Well, maybe things will improve. Maybe we’ll get a new supervisor. Maybe I’ll get moved to a new division. I’ll just keep working and wait and see.” 


Social scientist Carly Rusbult added a fourth option to Hirschman’s exit/voice/loyalty options for dealing with dissatisfaction: neglect. 

Neglect is similar to loyalty in that the dissatisfied person decides to stay on board with the declining job, relationship, or group, but instead of thinking things might improve if they’re patient, the person who adopts the neglect option has decided things won’t get better and chooses to take a “negative passive” approach to the situation by putting in less effort or not taking action to prevent the relationship or group from further falling apart. 

Rather than helping an ineffectual organization continue to limp feebly along, this individual stays but withdraws their support, with the idea that by letting the group collapse, its leadership will finally be forced to take action to change and improve it. The neglect approach is: “I’m not going to actively put out fires. I’m just going to let this thing burn to the ground so we can start fresh.”

Consider the overworked church member in a struggling congregation. He’s juggling multiple roles and dealing with a cadre of difficult people. Leaving isn’t an option because his wife grew up in that church and would never consider it. He knows raising his concerns to leadership would be ineffective because he tried that in the past. So exit and voice are off the table. 

He also doesn’t think things will get better if he sticks around and just keeps plugging away. Goodbye loyalty. 

Hello, neglect. 

This burned-out church member may start doing the bare minimum in his responsibilities, if that. He’ll say no to requests for his time, money, and talent. If he sees an issue or problem, he won’t do anything to correct it. He thinks that those who remain loyal are only perpetuating a state of dysfunction. By withholding his help, he hopes to push the congregation to a critical level of failure, which will require the leadership to fix the underlying issues. 

Predictors of Response to Dissatisfaction

So, in the face of dissatisfaction, people can respond with exit, voice, loyalty, or neglect. 

A person in declining circumstances conducts an explicit or implicit cost/benefit analysis in figuring out which path to take.

In Predicting Exit, Voice, Loyalty, and Neglect, researchers Michael Withey and William Cooper fleshed out the factors that go into this analysis when people consider how to respond to dissatisfaction:

Cost of the Action

Exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect all come with costs, both direct and indirect. 

Exiting a job can result in the loss of income and health benefits; divorcing a spouse can result in emotional and financial distress; leaving a church can result in spiritual and social isolation. 

Raising your voice at work could create rancor with your boss; speaking up in a marriage could create resentment with your spouse.

Whether you’re exiting or using your voice, there can also be a loss in the thing humans hold most dear: status. In leaving or dissenting, you risk jeopardizing your identity. 

Staying loyal to a relationship or organization comes with costs, too. If you keep your job in a toxic office, you’ll have to continue to weather the stress and debasement that comes with going to work each day. Same thing with staying in a struggling, conflict-ridden marriage or church. 

If you decide to be neglectful in your job, it could result in discipline or blocked opportunities. Neglect in a marriage will only lead to increased resentment and tension. 

The exit option tends to have the most dramatic consequences, and is thus much more reluctantly exercised and typically used as a last resort.

But there’s no option in the EVLN framework that doesn’t carry downsides; each has its own pros and cons, and part of how people weigh their choices comes down to which path they think has more of the former and less of the latter.

Efficacy of the Response

In deciding between exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect, people will also consider which response will be the most effective at resolving their dissatisfaction.

A big factor in whether someone thinks a particular response will be effective is whether they believe there’s hope for improvement. If someone has this hope, they’re more likely to choose voice or loyalty; if they don’t, they’re more likely to choose exit or neglect. If an unhappy employee thinks things would be a lot better at work if their supervisor moved on, and there’s a rumor they’ll soon be replaced, the employee is more likely to stick around. If a church member thinks their concerns will be listened to and addressed, they’re more likely to stay and raise their voice; if they think their concerns will be dismissed, they’re more likely to leave.

A significant element in whether someone has hope for a better future is their prior satisfaction with the group or relationship. If someone’s marriage is struggling now, but was great for the first decade, they’re more apt to keep working on it and believe there’s a chance of returning to those happier times. If someone’s marriage was rocky from the start, they’re more likely to choose divorce.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

If an individual has an internal locus of control, they’re more likely to choose a response that’s proactive. That is, if they believe they have control over their actions and outcomes, they’re more likely to use voice or exit.

Someone who has an external locus of control — a belief that their life is controlled by external circumstances — is more likely to passively endure a bad situation (loyalty or neglect).

Attractiveness of Alternatives

If someone feels like there are better options outside their current job/relationship/church, they’re more likely to leave. 

If someone’s in a job they dislike and has been fielding hiring interest from another employer, they’re more likely to quit.

If, on the other hand, someone feels they won’t be able to do much better in an alternate situation, they’re more likely to exercise the options of voice, loyalty, and neglect.

An individual who’s sixty and in a so-so marriage may not feel bullish about their prospects of finding another partner and decide they’d rather be with someone, anyone, than alone.


The decision to go, stay, or otherwise is also rooted in one’s inner values. 

Someone in an unhappy marriage who’s deeply committed to the sanctity of the marriage vow is more likely to choose therapy over divorce. 

Someone who is disturbed by recent trends in their church but deeply believes in the tenets of their faith is more likely to stay than exit. 

Someone who prizes loyalty will stay longer in a job they dislike than someone who doesn’t. 

Will Someone Choose Exit, Voice, Loyalty, or Neglect?

In a series of studies, Withey and Cooper used the above factors to create a rubric that helps predict which response a dissatisfied employee will use. It likely carries over to people dissatisfied with other situations as well:

Exit More Likely When: 

  • costs of exit are low
  • costs of voice are high
  • prior satisfaction is low
  • belief in improvement is low
  • commitment is low
  • attractive alternatives are available
  • individual has an internal locus of control

Voice More Likely When:

  • costs of exit are high
  • costs of voice are low
  • prior satisfaction is high
  • belief in improvement is high
  • commitment is high
  • attractive alternatives are not available
  • individual has an internal locus of control

Loyalty More Likely When:

  • costs of exit are high
  • costs of voice are high
  • prior satisfaction is high
  • belief in the likelihood of improvement is high
  • commitment is high
  • attractive alternatives are not available
  • individual has an external locus of control

Neglect More Likely When:

  • costs of exit are high
  • costs of voice are high
  • prior satisfaction is low
  • belief in the likelihood of improvement is low
  • commitment is low
  • attractive alternatives are not available
  • individual has an external locus of control

Something that Withey and Cooper didn’t explore, but Hirschman did, is the phenomenon of people who exercise the option of exit and voice. 

Hirschman argued that you see people use both exit and voice in situations where even if they leave a group due to dissatisfaction, they’re still affected by the group’s actions. 

You see this phenomenon with people who become disaffected with a church or religion. They may leave a faith, but they still have friends and family members who belong to it. Because the disaffected individual still interacts with these people, whose faith informs these interactions, the disaffected person is still impacted by the faith, even if they no longer practice it. At the same time, an individual who leaves a religion may feel that the religion damaged them somehow, and, though they have removed themselves from its direct influence, they don’t want to see other people get hurt in the same way. 

Consequently, people who leave a religion sometimes become its most vocal critics. 


As I mentioned at the start, once I learned about the exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect paradigm, I started to see it everywhere. If you’re a business owner, it can help explain why customers react to a dissatisfying experience the way they do. If you’re in a bad relationship, it can help you think about what action you want to take. If you’re a leader in a church, it can help you figure out why some people leave your congregation while others stick around.

It can also help you understand why struggling groups often continue to struggle: If a group loses enough good people, it’s apt to enter a death spiral.

As you go about dealing with people in all kinds of situations, the ELVN framework is one mental model you’ll want to keep in your back pocket.

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