Over the past few weeks, I had been writing a blog post about the neurobiology of disappointment. It started as a way to process some news that came to my family and later it transformed into an exercise to develop a more effective strategy to cope with this emotion. I spent time researching scientific articles about the neurochemistry of disappointment. I wrote a draft about what I understood on the subject and I put many hours into refining my ideas. It turns out the topic is quite interesting; I learned that regret and disappointment are similar emotions biochemically, however, a big part of their difference lies in our interpretation and evaluation of the situation. I also learned that, despite experiencing disappointment more frequently, optimists are better off than pessimists in the long run because they are more resilient. Exciting as the subject is, as time went on, I kept loosing interest and momentum to write that piece. How did that happened? To put it simply, I stopped enjoying the process of writing.
Faithful to my scientific background, I wanted the text to be rigorous, yet I did not want it to be a research paper. I wanted to avoid the jargon so everyone could understand it and, at the same time, I was concerned this would compromise the precision of some concepts. At some point, I thought I would be satisfied if the post turned out to be something similar to a New Scientist or a Scientific American article. However, it was never my intention to write a piece like that. I reached the point where I no longer felt the desire to write that blog post, but I had invested many hours on researching and writing. I was convinced that I had to finish the post, even if the sole reason for it would be to be able to move onto the next one. Since I did not allow myself to work on something else, I ended up stopping my writing altogether. Two days ago, I realized that I was facing a typical case of the sunk costs fallacy.
The sunk costs fallacy was first described in economical terms but we encounter it in a multitude of everyday situations. When we embark on any endeavor, we devote money, time and/or effort to accomplish our goals. If at any given point it becomes unclear when, or whether, we will achieve the desired outcome, we face two options: 1) we can continue investing more resources to accomplish our goal, or 2) we can make our peace with loosing what we’ve invested thus far and move on. Sunk costs are the resources that we won’t be able to recover no matter what. The more invested we are up to that decision point, the harder it will be to accept giving up and the more likely we are to continue investing. The fallacy lies in believing that investing more to continue down a specific path is worth it because we’ve already invested a lot. In many cases, we might have ended up hating what we were doing or we no longer deemed the goal worthy. Thus, we wish we would have been wiser and quit earlier. So, how can we avoid the sunk costs fallacy?
The hardest part of taking such decisions is knowing when enough is enough. If we decide to quit, we have to make our peace with loosing resources we devoted to it, such as money or time. It is well known that humans place a much higher negative value to loses than the positive value we assign to equivalent gains. In the field of economics this is called loss aversion and, in simple terms, it just means that the loses sting more than gains makes us happy. Additionally, we are bombarded by self-help quotes affirming that the only losers are those who quit and that we should continue no matter what. On top of all that, there are some personality traits that make these decisions harder for some people. I personally have a hard time knowing when to quit. I place a high value to resilience and grit, thus, I have a commitment with myself to finish what I start. However, life has taught me that sometimes the wiser thing to do is to cut my losses.
I can think of two high-stakes situations where I had to decide between investing more and quitting. In the first one I decided to keep investing to complete my PhD degree. In the second one, I decided to quit a romantic relationship that I had worked really hard on. I would lie if I were to tell you that I have a good strategy to take the right decision in such life-changing scenarios; those situations are really hard and personal. Anyone who claims to have an easy answer for it, or gives you a 10-step program to do so is kidding themselves. To this day, I cannot explain in simple terms how I made those choices. However, since then, and when faced with similar scenarios, I try to remind myself of the sunk costs fallacy in case it is ever helpful to take a decision. In fact, I find that the concept is helpful more frequent than not. For instance, recently, it helped me to have a more enjoyable birthday in an unexpected manner.
While I was watching the Great British Baking Show, I came across this delicious and sophisticated matcha crêpe cake that I thought I could make to celebrate my birthday. The plan was to spend the day at my parents’ house and, though they have a very reduced number of baking appliances, I thought I could still pull it off. The recipe did not seem too complicated but, in the end, it turned out to be a nightmare! I had just arrived from another trip, so I was tired and I only had a couple of hours to finish it. My mother’s ingredients were very limited and I felt guilty using them all. The pans were not right and I had a very basic mixer. The recipe called for meringue, which I failed twice. At first because I couldn’t get the egg whites to rise, and a second time because my dear husband (well intentioned as he was) gave me flour instead of sugar!!! Though I finally succeeded with the meringue, I then started burning the crêpes as they would stick to the pan, no matter what I did. I had to make more crêpe batter, which meant more ingredients and more time. I could try another pan but there was no guarantee that it would work. And… I still had to assemble the cake. Suddenly, amongst all that chaos, there was a moment of clarity: I realized, I could just quit. I felt so invested having used all those ingredients from my mother’s kitchen, my mother’s and husband’s time that I continued throwing more resources into it. I no longer cared about the cake, which based on the information I had until that moment, would likely had been awful. I recalled the concept of sunk costs fallacy and I did not think it twice. I decided to call the cake off. We went to sleep and I had a much needed rest, which in retrospect was a better birthday gift than the cake.
The story of my birthday cake brings me back to the neurobiology blog post I mentioned earlier. To invest or to quit? Certainly, I am not quitting writing but I am quitting writing that piece. I know I won’t be able to recover the time and effort I put towards it. However, I will be able to invest my personal resources to writing other pieces I enjoy more, like this one.
As a last note, if you are a person like me who does not know when to quit, I recommend you go get acquainted with the sunk costs fallacy.
Sara Tafoya is a young professional and mother. A biophysicist by training, a ceramist by heart, an aspiring author and a chocolate enthusiast. She spends her time thinking about biotechnology and art, singing lullabies and making sense of her life experiences.