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

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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)
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  • 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)
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The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.

The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

You can learn a lot about dealing with loss from a video game called Farmville.

You have probably heard of this game. In 2010, one in five Facebook users had a Farmville account. The barrage of updates generated by the game annoyed other users so much it forced the social network to change how users sent messages. At its peak, 84 million people played it, a number greater than the population of Italy.

Farmville has shrunk since then. About 50 million people were still playing in early 2011 – still impressive considering the fantasy megagame World of Warcraft boasts about a quarter as many players.

So, it must be really, really fun. A game with this many players must promise potent, unadulterated joy, right? Actually, the lasting appeal of Farmville has little to do with fun. To understand why people commit to this game and what it can teach you about the addictive nature of investment, you must first understand how your fear of loss leads to the sunk cost fallacy.

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