Tag Archives: personal experience

Springtime sort-outs and sunk costs

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.

–David McRaney
You Can Beat Your Brain

kelly-sikkema-216021 About an hour ago someone I’d never met before knocked at my front door. I gave him a pair of headphones, he said thank you, and the transaction was done. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever meet again.

We both benefited, me and the stranger: he gained a working pair of good quality hi-fi headphones, and I was rid of an object that I really didn’t need to own. This wasn’t as random an act as I’ve made it sound, and I haven’t started giving away everything I own in a fit of asceticism or altruism… it’s just that there are some possessions that I really don’t need to hang on to, and freecycle.org exists in order to rehome those things that I don’t have the energy or inclination to sell.

A familiar story?
Here’s the backstory: a long time agoprobably over ten years agoI bought a pair of headphones. At the time I was spending a lot of time listening to music through some tiny in-the-ear earphones, and it seemed sensible to treat myself for my birthday or whatever to a reasonably good-quality pair of hi-fi headphones. So I did. The sound quality was great, but however I adjusted them they were never really very comfortable to wear and after a few weeks of trying I pretty much gave up using them.

Every now and then I’d rediscover these headphones, wherever I’d stashed them, and try them again and then realise why I’d stopped using them. It got to the point where I’d accidentally find them, glare at them because they reminded of how I’d invested a reasonable amount of money by purchasing them, then ignore them. One more thing that I owned, but never used any more. One more thing that I might as well not own, but could not get rid of because (once again) I’d been taken in by the so-called ‘sunk costs’ fallacy.

sennheiser_padsActually, about six months ago I re-discovered these headphones, found that the material on the ear pads had perished, and bought some replacement ear pads over the internet. Thus investing even more money in this thing that I owned, but never used. I thought I was being rational, after all – what good were the headphones if the pads were falling to bits? Buying new pads would make the headphones great again! But that was the fallacy at work. A more objective view would have been that I was ‘throwing good money after bad’, expressed very clearly as ‘the truth’ in the quote from David McRaney’s book at the top of this article.

Anyway, conditions have changed and I think I’ve now made a better decision by freecycling the headphones rather than putting them back in a box under my bed to be ignored for another six months. There’s always going to be the nagging concern in the back of my mind that I might just need those at some future point, and I’ll regret having got rid of them. But I’ve felt that often enough before, and I seem to have survived.

The ‘sunk costs’ fallacy
The headphones story is just one aspect of a greater springtime sort-out that I’ve been engaged in over the Easter holiday. And turning up unused item after unused item I’ve been realising that I’ve been reluctant to let go mainly due to the sunk costs fallacy. This fallacy is behind a huge range of dysfunctional human behaviour, from the relatively harmless (eating a whole bag of crisps, even though you’re not very hungry, because you paid for a whole bag of crisps) to the very harmful (a head of state starting a war against another nation, even though the war will not improve things under  current conditions, because you had previously committed your country to that course of action based on the conditions back then).

967186270_4087dae835_bIn economics a ‘sunk cost’ is a cost that has been put into a project, and that cannot be recovered. In psychology the same term, by analogy, applies to emotional investments that have already been made: things that we cannot forget or un-do. The fallacy part comes in when we assume that we’re operating rationally (by not allowing the sunk costs to disproportionately influence our decision making) while actually operating irrationally (because of the strong emotional investment we have already made).

Apparently this fallacy is a consequence of the way that human minds work; the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on our behaviour than the promise of gainswhich is also known as ‘loss aversion’which means that we tend not to treat losses and gains in an even-handed way. In David McRaney’s highly readable book about cognitive biases and logical fallacies, ‘You can beat your brain‘ (US title: ‘You are now less dumb‘), he explains the enormous success of the Farmville game on social media in terms of the sunk costs fallacy. You can read this chapter of the book on McRaney’s own website (link).

Love people. Use things.
leather_bookmarksBefore I finish I’ll tell you about one more example from my springtime sort-out, one where the monetary value wasn’t a factor. And I’m not talking about the box of sixty leather bookmarks, although that was snapped up the same day by an enthusiastic freecycler whose mother apparently ‘loves all things books!’

For the past 25 years I’ve been hanging on to an A5-sized spiral-bound drawing pad, full of black pen landscape drawings that I’d done when I was about 15 years old. It was so long ago that I can’t quite remember what it was that made me start filling this book – I liked drawing and wanted to get better at it, I had time to spare during the school holidays. Anyway, the thing is that I’ve been hanging on to this pad for a quarter of a century: whenever I moved house, and that’s fairly often, the pad moved with me. I couldn’t get rid of this thing that was the only tangible reminder of the hundreds of hours I’d spent drawing these pictures in my mid-teens.

Looking through the pad of drawings a few days ago, with slightly more objective eyes, I realised that 90% of the drawings weren’t even original! I’d been working through a tutorial-style book called something like ‘How to draw landscapes‘. So I’ve removed the three pictures from the back of the pad that were my own creations, and recycled the rest. In fact I’ve gone one better and I’ve scanned these three pictures and they now live in ‘the cloud’ instead of my sock drawer.

Soulbury_cottagesAnd it’s not even the pictures that have value for me, it is the meaning they hold for me and others, and this meaning doesn’t depend on the continued physical existence of the object. For example, one of the drawings was of the row of cottages where my grandparents lived for most of their lives (shown in the picture here). I know that my grandfather, in his 90s now, will find this fascinating, it’ll be something we can talk about. We can laugh together about the sheds where he accumulated about five duplicates of every kind of gardening tool – that was quite an effort when he eventually moved out and down-sized, to help him let go of 60 years worth of well-hoarded stuff.

Let it go, let it go…
To conclude then, I’m not going to tell you that you might as well get rid of that material clutter in your life – you probably already know that! I’m not about to give you any advice about how to let go of the stuff that you’re needlessly hoarding either, there are enough minimalism blogs and progs which can help you with that. My point is this: remember the sunk costs fallacy, which lies behind your irrational reluctance to get rid of stuff that is of no value to you. And in remembering it, you’re no longer beholden to its underhand influence. If you can remember this with the more trivial issues of day-to-day living, there’s hope that you might also avoid the unethical actions that we are driven towards by loss aversion.

Looking to the near future, it will soon enough be time for the great summer sort-out, which means tackling the dreaded shed. Wish me luck.

How I nearly succumbed to apophenia: the case of the The Good Friday conspiracy

What psychologists call apophenia—the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there—gives rise to conspiracy theories.

–George Johnson

Maître_de_la_Légende_de_sainte_Ursule_-_Crucifixion_avec_CalvaireToday I learned a new term: apophenia, the tendency for humans to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things. I was already familiar with this particular cognitive bias from reading the work of Taleb and a number of different popular psychology books, but I didn’t know that there was a specific term for it. The neologism was coined in the 1950s by the psychologist Klaus Conrad, who considered this aberration in cognition to be a symptom of the onset of psychosis, but more recently apophenia has been recognised as a universal human tendency. In this blog post I will take you on the journey that led me to encounter this term, and I will also grapple with what I’ve learned from the experience, and what it might have to do with the Middle Way.

The background story
So, yesterday the UK (and many other Western countries) observed the Good Friday bank holiday, which traditionally is a Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Accordingly the day has—for those who adhere to traditional Christian religious beliefs—a rather solemn nature. On the day before Good Friday the largest supermarket chain in the UK, Tesco, ran an advertisement in some of the print versions of the national newspapers that featured the text “Great offers on beer and cider. Good Friday just got better.” Amusing or offensive? Or something else entirely? Of course it depends very much on your personal perspective.

C9RiKbcXgAAz-PSBy lunch-time on Thursday this advert, unlike most other newspaper adverts, had become a national news story in its own right. The BBC website published a story entitled “Tesco sorry for Good Friday beer advert“, featuring a quote from a Tesco spokesperson who said “We know that Easter is an important time of year for our customers. It is never our intention to offend and we are sorry if any has been caused by this advert.[sic]” This story was then widely shared and commented on in the usual social media channels, and it was on my Facebook feed that this story popped up after a friend had ‘reacted’ it. If you’ve got this far and are still not sure why anyone might have taken offence, follow the above link to the BBC news story and read it.

Or course, I had to see what all the fuss was about and clicked on the link myself in order to read the details. It took no time at all for the following idea to take shape in my mind:  this isn’t an issue of Tesco employees with a poor grasp of religious sensibilities in the UK making a goofy gaffe, this is a deliberate conspiracy from within Tesco to grab free publicity by pushing the ‘controversy’ button in the run up to Easter! [Note that we’ve also recently had a media “storm in an egg-cup” involving the Prime Minister, the National Trust and accusations of manufactured controversy.]

A conspiracy built up, and knocked down again
It all seemed so obvious. This is how the conspiracy stacked up in my mind: Someone deep within the Tesco advertising machine had struck upon a fiendishly clever plan. (1) Run a weakly controversial advert in the Holy Week national newspapers where only a minority of the nation will see it. (2) The initial reaction to the ad on social media is picked up by the BBC and other national news agencies, who report it through their own channels. (3) The story goes viral on social media, fueled by parties on both sides of the conventionally religious/secular split making comments like “I’m outraged by Tesco’s insensitivity!” and “Get over yourself, its supposed to be funny!” (4) Issue an official apology, saying that no offense was ever intended (and it wasn’t… it was the public expression of that offense that was intended) (5) Sit back and watch the extra customers pile into Tesco stores to take advantage of the beer and cider offers that they’d seen mentioned on Facebook and Twitter.

Thankfully, after the few seconds that it took me to concoct this conspiracy story I paused to think things through before blurting it out in any public forum.  During that pause I could tell that I felt quite pleased with myself for ‘seeing through’ this particular story, that I had taken it a step beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the commentators on social media. Noticing that feeling produced the suspicion that I had fallen for the classic move of fooling myself. I told myself I’d come back to it in the morning, even if it wasn’t such a hot news item then.

This morning, then, I did return to my Good Friday conspiracy. And having let it lie overnight, I felt less possessed by the idea. In fact I outlined my conspiracy privately to a friend, one who I respect deeply for his ability to think critically… although honestly I think I’d chosen to communicate with him because I thought he would agree with me, and be amused at our mutual cleverness and superiority. His point of view was measured, reasonable, and stopped just short of being in total disagreement with me.

My friend made some good points that I’d swept away in my excitement to nail a conspiracy: it is unlikely that Tesco could predict human behaviour that well, so it would be too much of a gamble for them in case it back-fired. And for it to be a corporate strategy it would have to be sustained for a number of instances, without being leaked to the public, and without causing considerable damage to the company’s reputation. Remember Occam’s razor! He also opined that the same people who come up with these conspiracies (which require extraordinary competence from the alleged perpetrators) simultaneously criticise the alleged perpetrators for being incompetent in most other aspects of their business.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes…
So what have I learned from this (largely inconsequential) affair? With hindsight there shouldn’t be any surprise that it’s the perennial moral of the story: It’s Not All About Me. It seems to be a very very hard lesson for me to learn, and I presume I will never be able to entirely avoid it as it’s something deeply built into the way that we self-aware humans operate.

Firstly, as I’ve already confessed above, there was a sense of self-satisfaction of being clever enough to concoct this conspiracy. In short: aren’t I special? Secondly, I saw myself as being above all the bickering fools reacting to the news story. Again, in short: aren’t I a superior specimen amongst my peers? Thirdly, I saw this as vindication of my pre-existing belief that Tesco was an amoral corporation, willing to deceive the public for their own profit. In short: what I believe is correct, and aren’t I an altogether more ethical entity? In summary, the episode confirms to myself that I’m the super-great guy that I already thought that I was. And this feeling persists, even though day after day I recognise that I was a fool yesterday – but never today!

Critical thinking is crucial
How, then, might all this be connected to the Middle Way? Primarily, I think it is a good illustration of the practice of critical thinking in a low-stakes ethical situation. Consider this quote from Robert M Ellis’s “Migglism: A beginner’s guide to Middle Way Philosophy“:

The development of critical thinking is crucial to the practice of the Middle Way. The Middle Way enables us to address conditions by avoiding the interpretation of our experience through metaphysical preconceptions. Very often those preconceptions become apparent through critical thinking as unjustified assumptions. We need a certain amount of awareness to become aware of a critical problem and apply thought to it, but critical thinking skills are then needed to identify what the unhelpful and unjustified assumptions are.

The major metaphysical preconception in my story is that “I must be right because I feel so right.” It’s a position that’s untenable upon closer inspection, but so often that closer inspection never gets a chance to happen! In this instance it was the fact that I paid attention to the tiny end of the wedge of doubt that my conspiracy story might have no justification whatsoever apart from the fact that it felt so right to me. And notice how I drove the wedge in deeper between the foolishness of my thoughts and the eventual outcome of my actions: I noticed the ‘alarm bells’ that come along with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, I counted to ten (actually, I slept on it), and—perhaps most importantly of all—I offered up the justification for my beliefs to be criticised by an honest friend, one that I could be sure of getting an honest appraisal from, and I was open to the possibility that he may change my mind. And he did.

I can only hope that by practicing and reflecting on this kind of examination of my assumptions in a low-risk situation, that I would be more likely to take a similar approach when the stakes are higher.

My brain’s left hemisphere loves a conspiracy
So, to finish, now that I’ve successfully avoided making a fool of myself on social media with regards to this Good Friday story, I’ve become intrigued as to what might lie behind my desire to concoct a conspiracy. And that’s where apophenia comes in, and I suggest it might be understood in terms of the psychological model of brain lateralisation expounded by Iain McGilchrist. This is how he summarises the nature of the attention of the left hemisphere in the 2016 Blake Lecture:

The attention of the left hemisphere is narrow, targeted, piecemeal, isolative, producing a world of tiny discrete fragments, each appearing certain, static and unchanging. Particles which could, so it seems, be put together like bricks building a wall or cogs making a machine to produce something of use. It has designs on the world.

So, when I read that news story on the BBC website, my left hemisphere analysed it into pieces, compared those pieces with the so-called facts I already knew (which perhaps were really prejudices in the form of absolute concepts such as ‘Tesco is an unethical profit-motivated corporation’) and concocted a satisfying, specific, self-consistent theory that fitted with my pre-existing beliefs. The down-side being that, despite its certainty and logical splendour, it had no degree of objectivity whatsoever. Its assumptions had little justification from wider experience.

Contrast this with the attention of the right hemisphere, as described by McGilchrist:

The right hemisphere meanwhile sees the whole breadth of the picture in a sustained and continuous way. This is an entirely different experiential world, one in which we are involved with, affect and are affected by everything through the sheer fact of our relationship with it. It is indeed a world primarily of relationships, in which the things themselves are never wholly separable from the context in which they lie, and the interconnections which exist between everything that is. It is a world that is never fixed, unchanging, certain, but constantly evolving and creating new wholes.

So, in order to avoid being trapped within the delusions of the left hemisphere, I had to find a way of bringing in the right hemisphere to play its role. Simply appealing to rationality would not work, as that would just be more left-hemisphere action. I had to be sensitive to the ambiguity in the situation, to seek out another person’s point of view, to consider the story in its wider context where that context included my own left-hemisphere’s tendency to prefer simple, certain, rational judgments no matter how inaccurate those judgments are. In other words: apophenia may be appealing, but not justified in the messy muddle and complexity of existence.

Now, I must wrap this up now as all this typing has made me rather thirsty, and I hear that they’ve got some good deals on at my local supermarket…