Friday, August 28, 2015

Sunk costs and chronic illnesses

I recently read, for the first time, this piece on Lifehack about the sunk cost fallacy, and it was a revelation, in more ways than one.

The explanation in the article is a model of lucidity and brevity, but to summarise even more, this amounts to the fallacy that once you have "paid" for something, in money or in any other way, you must commit to doing the thing fully to get value for your money (or emotional effort, or whatever other currency you "paid" with).

The reason this is a fallacy is clear when you think it through. You've already paid over the money / time / effort - nothing you do or don't do from this point will recover it. That cost is well and truly sunk. Persisting with doing a thing that is not working out for you, is unpleasant, or in some other way counter-productive, solely because you feel you have to recoup your sunk costs is therefore nonsense. 

The example that's easiest to explain is buying a ticket to a pub band and discovering three songs in that you hate them / you have a bad headache / you're too tired to really enjoy yourself. If you persist because "I've paid my money now", all you get then is a lost $50 AND a shitty night out. If you accept that the sunk cost shouldn't be a factor in making your decision, maybe you still stay because you want to expand your musical horizons or because you are keen to spend time with your friends, or maybe you leave, but it's not motivated by a desire to recover the (unrecoverable) $50 you spent walking in.

There is no doubt that I fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy a lot, and, like many people, that I also use it as a stick to beat myself into doing something I feel I ought to for some other reason. However, it struck me forcibly that there is one group of people for whom understanding and really internalising that sunk costs are are fallacy is critical. That group is people who, like me, suffer from relapsing/remitting chronic illnesses.

With my three interlocking health conditions, a fair portion of the time I'm as regular a person as anyone - normal capacity, normal energy, normal abilities. Then again, sometimes, and often with relatively little warning, I'm really not, and doing even everyday things becomes difficult, or painful, or unbearably stressful.

Yet, even when I am in a flare, I find it hard to feel OK about not doing things or going to things that I have planned to do, and invested something (be it money, effort or emotions) in doing. Sometimes, against my better judgement, I try to push on and do the thing anyway, usually with heinous results.  This is even more true when the investment I have made is not merely money, but emotional (ie it's much easier to let go of a plain old night at a show, than it is to let go of a night at a show with my daughters who are also excited about it).

Letting go of the notion that I can recover the sunk costs is going to help me, I think, counterbalance the natural frustration and disappointment and FOMO that I feel when my health means I can't do something I'd hoped or planned to do. It's also going to - in fact, already has - make me more cautious about the costs I sink, both in terms of money and emotions.

If I can free myself from the sunk cost fallacy, I'll work towards an attitude where I buy event tickets / make social commitments / put in efforts in a spirit of hopefulness and intention, but can accept that sometimes my best intentions won't get me over the line. That's when these sunk costs will be just that, and that has to be OK. Having "paid" for the thing is not a relevant factor in whether, when the time comes, it's the right decision to go ahead with the thing. That's what I have to remind myself, moving forward.

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