YANSS Podcast 035 – Sunk Costs and the Pain of Vain

The Topic: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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Every once in a while you will ask yourself, “I wonder if I should quit?”

Should you quit your job? Should you end your relationship? Should you abandon your degree? Should you shut down this project?

These are difficult questions to answer. If you are like me, every time you’ve heard one of those questions emerge in your mind, it lingered. It began to echo right as you woke up and just as pulled the covers over your shoulders. In the shower, waiting in line, in all your quiet moments – a question like that will appear behind your eyes, pulsating like a giant neon billboard until you can work out your decision.

Oddly enough, as a human being, that decision is often not made any easier when quitting is the most logical course of action. Even if it is obvious that it is no longer worth your time to keep going, your desire to plod on and your reluctance to quit are both muddled by an argumentative loop inside which you and many others easily get stuck.

The same psychological hooks that cost companies millions of dollars to produce products obviously destined to fail can also keep troops in harm’s way long past the point when the whole war effort should be brought to an end. It’s a universal human tendency, the same one that influences you to keep watching a bad movie instead of walking out of the theater in time to catch another or that keeps you planted in your seat at a restaurant after you’ve been waiting thirty minutes for your drinks. If you reach the end of the quest, you think, then you haven’t truly lost anything, and that is sometimes a motivation so strong it prolongs horrific, bloody wars and enormously expensive projects well past the point when most people involved in efforts like those have felt a strong intuition that no matter the outcome, at this point, total losses will exceed any potential gains.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we explore the sunk cost fallacy, a strangely twisted bit of logic that seems to pop into the human mind once a person has experienced the pain of loss or the ickiness of waste on his or her way toward a concrete goal. It’s illogical, irrational, unreasonable – and as a perfectly normal human being, you act under its influence all the time.

LINKS

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Liberal or conservative? Brain responses to disgusting images help reveal political leanings

The Genetic Fallacy

More on The Genetic Fallacy

SOURCES

  • Ariely, D. (2009). Predictably irrational, revised and expanded edition: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. Harper. (Amazon link)
  • Arkes, Hal R., and Peter Ayton. “The Sunk Cost and Concorde Effects: Are Humans Less Rational than Lower Animals?” Psychological Bulletin 125.5 (1999): 591-600. Print. (pdf)
  • Burthold, G. R. (2008). Psychology of decision making in legal, health care and science settings. Gardners Books. (Google Books link)
  • Busch, Jack. “Travel Zen: How to Avoid Making Your Vacation Seem Like Work.” Primer Magazine. Primer Magazine, Jan. 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Gaming Can Make a Better World. By Jane McGonigal. TED Talks. TED Conferences, LLC, Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Godin, Seth. “Ignore Sunk Costs.” Seth’s Blog. Typepad, Inc., 12 May 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Höffler, Felix. “Why Humans Care About Sunk Costs While (Lower) Animals Don’t.” The Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, 31 Mar. 2008. Web. Mar. 2011. (pdf)
  • Indvik, Lauren. “FarmVille” Interruption Cited in Baby’s Murder.” Mashable. Mashable Inc., 28 Oct. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Amazon link)
  • Kushner, David. “Games: Why Zynga’s Success Makes Game Designers Gloomy.” Wired. Conde Nast Digital, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Lehrer, Jonah. “Loss Aversion.” ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs LLC, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Schwartz, Barry. “The Sunk-Cost Fallacy Bush Falls Victim to a Bad New Argument for the Iraq War.” Slate. The Slate Group, 09 Sept. 2005. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Shambora, Jessica. “‘FarmVille’ Gamemaker Zynga Sees Dollar Signs.” CNN Money. Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2009. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Vidyarthi, Neil. “City Council Member Booted For Playing Farmville.” SocialTimes. Web Media Brands Inc., 30 Mar. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Walker, Tim. “Welcome to FarmVille: Population 80 Million.” Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 22 Feb. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011.
  • “Why Zynga’s Success Makes Game Designers Gloomy | Discussion at Hacker News.” Hacker News. Y Combinator, 7 Oct. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011 (link)
  • Wittmershaus, Eric. “Facebook Game’s Cautionary Tale.” GameWit. Press Democrat Media Co., 04 Aug. 2010. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
  • Yang, Sizhao Zao. “How Did FarmVille Take over FarmTown, When It Was Just a Exact Duplicate of FarmTown and FarmTown Was Released Much Earlier?” Quora. Quora, Inc., 01 Jan. 2011. Web. Mar. 2011. (link)
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YANSS Podcast 034 – After This, Therefore Because of This: Your Weird Relationship with Cause and Effect

The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 3.02.37 PM

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When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.

Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.

For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.

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YANSS Podcast 032 – Seeing willpower as powered by a battery that must be recharged

The Topic: Ego Depletion

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on "It's Me or The Dog" on Animal Planet

Stains the dog abstains from cupcakes on “It’s Me or The Dog” on Animal Planet

One of my favorite tropes in fiction is the idea of the perfect thinker – the person who has shed all the baggage of being an emotional human being and could enjoy the freedom and glory of pure logic, if only he or she could feel joy.

Spock, Data, Seven of Nine, Sherlock Holmes, Mordin Solus, Austin James, The T-1000 – there are so many variations of the idea. In each fictional world, these beings accomplish amazing feats thanks to possessing cold reason devoid of all those squishy feelings. Not being very good at telling jokes or hanging out at parties are among their only weaknesses.

It’s a nice fantasy, to imagine without emotions one could become super-rational and thus achieve things other people could not. It suggests that we often see emotion as a weakness, that many people wish they could be more Spockish. But the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio suggests that such a thing would be a nightmare. In his book, “Decarte’s Error” he describes patients who, because of an accident or a disorder, are no longer able to feel silly or annoyed or hateful or anything else. If they can, those feelings just graze them, never taking hold. Damasio explains that these patients, emotionally barren, are rendered powerless to choose a path in life. They can’t ascribe value to anything. Their world is flat. Despite remaining very intelligent and able to carry on conversations, they no longer make good decisions. Former business owners will lose all their money on bad investments. People who used to work from home will become lost in constantly reorganizing their shelves. Not only are their decisions flawed, but reaching conclusions becomes an excruciating process. When Damasio handed one of these patients two pens, one red and one blue, and asked him to fill out a questionnaire, the man was lost. To choose red over blue using logic alone took about half an hour. Every pro and con was listed, every branching possibility of future outcomes considered. Damasio wrote that “when emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.” Judgments and decisions corrupted by bias and passion are the only way we ever get anything done.

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You Are Now Less Dumb now out in paperback!

fbbookHere are just a few of the hundreds of new ideas you’ll stuff in your head while reading You Are Now Less Dumb:

* You’ll learn about a scientist’s bizarre experiment that tested what would happen if multiple messiahs lived together for several years and how you can use what he learned to debunk your own delusions.

* You’ll see how Bill Clinton, Gerard Butler, and Robert DeNiro are all equally ignorant in one very silly way that you can easily avoid.

*You’ll learn why the same person’s accent can be irritating in some situations and charming in others and how that relates to poor hiring choices as well as avoidable mistakes in education.

*You’ll finally understand why people wait in line to walk into unlocked rooms and how that same behavior slows progress and social change.

*You’ll learn why people who die and come back tend to return with similar stories, and you’ll see how the explanation can help you avoid arguments on the internet. You’ll discover the connection between salads, football, and consciousness.

LINKS TO BUY

Amazon IB –  B&N – BAM Powell’siTunes – Audible – Google

EXCERPTS

TRAILERS

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Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.51.41 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 9.51.41 PM

THE STORY BEHIND THE GOOSE TREES

Before I explain where the idea came from, I’d like to endorse the people who did the hardest work. If you need a video, please contact Plus3. They made the trailers above, and they are great to work with. You can visit their website at http://www.plus3video.com.

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YANSS Podcast 028 – The Sanity of Crowds with Michael Bond

The Topic: Crowds

The Guest: Michael Bond

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns - Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

A scene from the 2011 Vancouver riots, described by the photographer as, “a rioter dressed in a Vancouver Canucks jersey cheers on while a car burns” – Source: Wikimedia Commons, User: David Elop, Original here: http://bit.ly/1tqXdx6

It is a human tendency that’s impossible not to notice during wars and revolutions – and a dangerous one to forget when resting between them.

In psychology they call it deindividuation, losing yourself to the will of a crowd. In a mob, protest, riot, or even an audience, the presence of others redraws the borders of your normal persona. Simply put, you will think, feel, and do things in a crowd that alone you would not.

Psychology didn’t discover this, of course. The fact that being in a group recasts the character you usually play has been the subject of much reflection ever since people have had the time to reflect. No, today psychology is trying to chip away at the prevailing wisdom on what crowds do to your mind and why.

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YANSS Podcast 027 – The New Science Communicators with Joe Hanson

The Topic: Science Communication

The Guest: Joe Hanson

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

I recently collaborated with Joe Hanson of the YouTube channel It’s Okay to be Smart and helped him write an episode about pattern recognition.

The video is all about how our hyperactive order-generating brains can lead to us to incorrect assumptions, and how those assumptions can lead to widespread, social phenomena causing millions of people to do completely ridiculous and futile things, sometimes for generations. In our video, Joe talks about blowing in Nintendo cartridges to get them to work (totally pointless, and damaging), but you can substitute that behavior with a lot of other silly things that we did until science came along and tested to see if we were wrong.

I thought it would be great to bring him on the show and interview him in an episode all about the new science communicators, the people who grew up with Carl Sagan and Bill Nye, who are now watched by millions of people online as they explain everything from why some sounds are scary to whether or not Spanish delivers more information per minute than does English. Most of those YouTube channels get more viewers per episode than any FOX News program. Many YouTube science shows, numbers-wise, are far more popular than Game of Thrones.

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YANSS Podcast 25 – How the clothes you wear change your perceptions and behaviors with Hajo Adam

The Topic: Enclothed Cognition

The Guest: Hajo Adam

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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When you work from home, do you produce better results in pajamas or professional attire? Do casual Fridays damage productivity? Does a jeans-and-T-shirt startup have an edge over its business-casual competitor?

Researchers are just now getting to the bottom of questions like these. The answers depend on the symbolic power the particular item of clothing has in the mind of the particular wearer, but the answer to each question is never “not at all.”

Up until now, most psychological investigations into clothing have dealt with how clothes communicate status or facilitate rituals. For instance, if you put a person in a police uniform and have them ask questions or make demands you’ll get completely different results than if you had the same person wear a pirate costume. But what about the person in the uniform or the costume? Are the clothes affecting his or her behavior, thoughts, judgments, and decisions? The evidence collected so far suggests that yes, the clothes we wear affect our minds in ways we never notice. In fact, it’s likely the same person in the same situation in the same clothes will behave differently depending just on the color of those clothes.

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YANSS Podcast 023 – What you can learn about dealing with differing political views from bloodthirsty, warring tribes of children

The Topic: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

A photo from the Robber's Cave Study - Source: York University, Toronto

A photo from the Robber’s Cave Study – Source: York University, Toronto

In the 1950s, in an effort to better understand group conflict, a team of psychologists nearly turned a summer camp into Lord of The Flies.

The story of how and why it was so easy to turn normal boys into bloodthirsty, warring tribes (and how those tribes eventually reconciled and became peaceful thanks to brilliantly conceived cooperative exercises) can teach you a lot about a common mental phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight – something that helps keep you loyal to certain groups and alters the way you see outsiders.

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YANSS Podcast 022 – How we miss what is missing and what to do about it with statistician Megan Price

The Topic: Survivorship Bias

The Guest: Megan Price

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Illustration by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com - available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/1mItekh

Illustrations by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com – available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/1mItekh

The problem with sorting out failures and successes is that failures are often muted, destroyed, or somehow removed from sight while successes are left behind, weighting your decisions and perceptions, tilting your view of the world. That means to be successful you must learn how to seek out what is missing. You must learn what not to do. Unfortunately, survivorship bias stands between you and the epiphanies you seek.

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YANSS Podcast 021 – Christina Draganich explains how anyone can use science as a tool to understand nature, human and otherwise

The Topic(s): Placebo Sleep and Science

The Guest: Christina Draganich

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons,  http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

In 1998, The Journal of the American Medical Association published research that debunked therapeutic touch and moved the well-meaning mystical practice out of the kingdom of medicine and into the abandoned strip mall of quackery.

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