THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 21

Subject:  Sunk Cost — The Concorde Program 

Event:  Concorde’s first flight, 1976

No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back.  -Turkish Proverb

On January 21, 1976, the Concorde made its first commercial flight.  This supersonic aircraft that could fly from London to New York in just three and half hours was a joint project by England and France.  Even before the first flight, British and French taxpayers contributed over a billion and a half dollars to the program.  The state of the art appearance and speed of the aircraft were impressive, but the reality was that the plane never turned a profit.  Despite the fact that both England and France were losing large sums of money financing the Concorde program, they continued to operate it at a loss, unwilling to admit that continuing to finance the plane was not financially viable.  Despite the fact the Concorde was a fast aircraft, flying at twice the speed of sound, its financiers were slow to see that it was just too expensive to operate.  They did, however, finally throw in the towel.  The Concorde made its final flight on October 24, 2003, 27 years after its inaugural flight.

British Airways Concorde G-BOAC 03.jpg
British Airways Concorde in 1986 (Wikipedia)

Economists call this the “Concorde effect,” also known as the sunk cost fallacy, the human tendency to resist cutting our losses when we have invested money or time into something.  Nations, companies, and individuals are all susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.  America’s involvement in Vietnam, for example, continued much longer than it should have.  Instead of ending the futile campaign, government and military leaders used the sacrifice and the loss of blood and treasure as a rationale to continue the fight.

The key to avoiding the sunk cost fallacy is to focus not on past losses but instead on future costs and benefits.  The time, money, or energy you have invested in the past is gone and should be forgotten.  The only reasonable course is to make an honest, realistic look at the likelihood of future gains.  So, for example, if you are having trouble in a relationship with a significant other, focus on the future, not the past.  The length of time that you two have been together, whether it is two weeks or two years, is no reason to stay in the relationship.  Instead, focus on the future; is there a real likelihood that this person is someone who will enrich your life tomorrow and into the long term future?  

For a first-hand example of the sunk cost fallacy, try this thought experiment:  Imagine that you have booked a ski vacation in Michigan for a cost of $100.  You then discover a better ski trip at a cost of just $50 in Wisconsin, so you buy a ticket for that trip too.  You then realize that both trips are booked for the exact same weekend.  Neither trip is refundable, so you must decide which one to go on.  Which one would it be?

When researchers conducted this experiment in 1985, they demonstrated the true effect of the sunk cost fallacy.  Over half of the people chose the more expensive trip.  Even though the $100 trip did not promise as much fun as the $50 trip, the potential loss of a greater amount made it harder to give up.  Of course, this makes no sense since the amount spent is $150 regardless of which trip is selected.  This is why the sunk cost error is a “fallacy”: a belief or feeling that masquerades as a reasonable conclusion but that is in reality logically unsound and invalid (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How does the Concorde program illustrate the dangers of the sunk cost fallacy, and how can people avoid making this error in their own lives?

Challenge – Why We Fear Losses:  What is Loss Aversion? A key factor that contributes to the persistence of the sunk cost fallacy, is a related cognitive bias called “loss aversion.”  Do some research on this concept.  What is it, and why should people be warned about it?

Sources:

1-McRaney, David. You Are Now Less Dumb. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.

January 21: Novel First Lines Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. When the book was first released in 1789, it was published anonymously.  Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24-year-old Bostonian, came forward to claim authorship.

Although the novel is not remembered today for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of its time.  Reflecting a popular 18th-century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its story is told via letters between characters.  The novel involves an illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale.  Some speculate that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.

Although there are certainly examples of long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative, best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.

Today’s Challenge:  Blackjack Sentences

How can you captivate a reader by writing a 21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel?  To celebrate America’s first novel on 1/21, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly 21 words.  Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.  

Here’s an example:

At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.

There is nothing magical about 21 words, but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention as you revise and edit.  When you write the first draft of your sentence, don’t worry about word count.  Get some ideas and details down on paper first.  Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly 21 (no more, no fewer).

The sentences below are some examples of opening sentences from American novels.  They are not 21 words, but they will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their works:

You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature.  (1789)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.  -Jane Austen

1-McCarthy, Erin. 7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel. Mental Floss.com. 21 Jan. 2016. http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel.