Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sunk Cost Fallacy

I enjoy when I am reading a book and I learn something serendipitously.   I especially like when it is something that labels and defines an experience that we all have and perhaps even suspect that we are deluding ourselves but never quite examine in the full light of conscious inquiry.
Image Credit:

Most of us have had the experience of engaging in the consumption of something beyond our desire because we have paid for it, cannot get our money back, and feel obligated to get our money's worth...eating too much at a restaurant, watching a crappy movie to its end, or finishing a lousy book for example.

I am reading The Rosie Affect: A Novel  by Graeme Simsion, which is not a lousy book, and I ran across this passage:

Sonia was an accountant. She would understand the logic of decision making. I took Rosie’s spreadsheet from my pocket and gave it to her. She held it with one hand while steadying the baby with the other. I was impressed with her proficiency after such a short period.
“My God, you guys are both nuts,” she said. “Which is why you should be together.” She looked at the spreadsheet for a few more seconds. “What’s this about already purchased the air ticket?”
 “Rosie’s ticket was nonrefundable . She felt obliged not to waste the investment. It was obviously a factor in her decision to go home.” 
“You’d break up over the price of an air ticket? Anyway, she’s wrong. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy. You don’t take nonrecoupable costs into account in making investment decisions. What’s gone is gone.”

Simsion, Graeme (2014-12-30). The Rosie Effect: A Novel (Don Tillman Book 2) (p. 300). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

So I wondered, gee is there really such a thing as a sunk cost fallacy.  Indeed there is and here is an excellent description of it as it affects normal people in normal life (rather than an economic consideration for business that is described in Wikipedia)., How the sunk cost fallacy makes you act stupid, Michael Davidson

I have a good example of sunk cost fallacy that happened to me about 15 years ago.  I bought a digital watch that changed the display mode by rotating the bezel around the dial.  That seemed cool, instead of punching little buttons to get the various modes, you twisted the bezel one direction or the other.  Another plus for this watch (not the one in the photo below) was that it had rather large digits so I could see the time without my glasses which are only needed for reading.  My wife, who is rarely with me when I shop for watches, said "Don't buy that. You will be unhappy with that mode ring." Fateful words, I didn't listen.  

Not my watch but similar.  Note the arrows on the bezel. 

I bought the watch and yes I could easily see what time it was at a glance, those big digits were easy to see. The watch was really cool, it had all these modes, one of which was the time. The only trouble was that the ring constantly got bumped and if there was 5 modes, that meant at best, a glance at my watch yielded the current time only on 20% of the glances.  So I would be at a boring meeting and I would casually sneak a  look at my watch and 80% of the time I would see Th 3-12,  or LAP 8 - 20:17:39, or 99:99:59.999, or ALM 05:50 AM and every once in a while the time. After the end of my first day with the watch, I thought maybe my wife is right, this watch could be a PIA.  Ahhh you will get used to it. Give it a chance.  

By the time I had it for 3 months, "this f---ing watch is driving me crazy." Then I thought of an elaborate plan. We had a product at work that with the test fixturing installed weighed 48 tons. I was going to set the watch on the floor and have the techs set the test article on the watch with the crane. Meanwhile I had to wait for this product to come to our department, we only built a few of these monsters every year.  We had plenty of  10 ton or 20 ton units, but I wanted to destroy that damned watch with the big guy.   Insanely due to sunk cost fallacy, I continued to use the watch while waiting for this humongous product to show up in our department.   May as well get my money's worth while waiting to destroy it. 

Again not my watch, but mine sort of looked like this. 

One day I looked at the watch and it said 63:37:12.107...108...109 changing every millisecond. I procured a ziplock bag and borrowed a 4 pound rawhide mallet from one of the techs. I put the watch in a vice and beat the f--- out of it with that mallet. Like Ralphy Parker during the Scot Farkus incident, "I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed"* at the top of my lungs while swinging away at the watch with Garland's finest rawhide mallet. After several minutes of beating and swearing, I collected the remains of the watch put them in the bag, and calmly returned the mallet to the tech. I stopped on the way home from work and bought the watch my wife wanted me to buy, the digits were smaller but the modes were set with tiny buttons. I returned home and handed her the bag of shattered watch parts and said "you were right." 

Every now an again we will have a discussion in which we have divergent opinions. My wife will disappear for a moment and return with a zip lock bag with a bunch of shattered black plastic and tiny circuit boards and shake it at me. End of argument, she wins.  

The lesson: do not arm a woman with a physical example of your sunk cost fallacy. 

Garland Model 31004
Image Credit.  MSC.Direct

For those readers with an interest in tools, the mallet of choice for an operation like this is a Garland Model 31004 it is available at MSC Industrial Supply Company:

It has a 4 pound head weight, 2" rawhide faces (dipped in some sort of adhesive making it very tough and resilient),  a 14 inch hickory handle, and (at the time I was buying them) made in the USA.    What I like about this hammer is that you can get a tremendous amount of impact force with very little glancing.  Behind the replaceable rawhide faces is a solid steel mass.   You have very good control over the hammer especially after some use and the rawhide ends begin to mushroom.   As a result it is a very safe hammer for applying heavy shock to an object, and I found the hammer to deliver little return impact to your hands and arms.   I could do more work with a 4 pound rawhide mallet than I could with sledge hammer which requires a lot of strength and good control.  Another thing I like about these hammers, the head attachment to the handle is very durable.  I have never seen a loose head in the many units we had at work.  The only disadvantage I encountered with this hammer is that after a while the ends mushroom which actually makes the hammer more stable and less given to glancing, but the rawhide will pulverize with each blow and leave particulate on the work surface.  For applications requiring a high level of cleanliness, this hammer is ill-advised.  Also you will note that the hammer is fairly pricey.  Alas, being retired,  I no longer have access to one. 

BTW, Amazon also carries Garland hammers and mallets, but I doubt that you can buy The Rosie Effect at MSC.   

For smashing watches that have pissed you off, this hammer is highly recommended.   Generally when I get into one of these endeavors, I am by definition rather angry and anger is always a poor time to pursue any task, but especially one that involves striking with a hammer.  Due to the inherent safety of this hammer mostly from its resistance to glancing, and the non-marring quality of the ends, it is highly recommend for the smashing of watches in your vice.  Remember, always wear approved eye protection when using a hammer. 

I must offer a caveat.  I highly recommend not smashing your watch.  All digital and most analogue watches have a battery, which is often lithium or some other toxic material.   If you simply must smash the watch, please remove and properly dispose of the battery prior to smashing it.


Cover, The Rosie Effect:

Timex watch with rotating bezel mode selector: