Meaning and Motivation versus The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Hi class! I have been reflecting on what we discussed in Week 4 about meaning and motivation. I’m referring specifically to the TEDTalk Prof Audrey shared with us by Dan Ariely, “What makes us feel good about our work?” While Ariely’s idea was inspiring I also wondered: “Should the effort one has already put into a project, and thus the meaning that one attaches to it as a result of these efforts, be the primary motivator of a person’s actions?” In my blog post, I bring up an alternative perspective in the form of the sunk cost fallacy, in which attaching meaning as a function of previous effort or hard work might, in fact, be harmful rather than helpful.

At first blush it seems like a beautiful idea, that we not only work harder on our projects, but grow to love them, in the same way a parent does a child. For instance, if we have worked on building the foundations of a new social entrepreneurship initiative (a meaningful direction) for two years (persistence in efforts), with no financial renumeration (intensity of efforts), we would be triply disappointed and crushed if we find that, due to some unforeseen circumstance or obstacle, our project cannot come to fruition. This is because “meaning”, in Ariely’s sense, is crushed.

So what, then, if we find that our efforts have been washed down the drain? Ariely suggests that recognition of effort, as well as the redirection of efforts into some kind of productivity (using an abandoned project somehow to benefit other projects) is a good way of mitigating the loss of meaning. We should still salvage the project, so that we can prove that there was still some meaning in the two years’ of blood, sweat, and tears we have poured into the project. And this would reduce workers’ loss of motivation to try again on future projects.

I would like to contrast this approach with an alternative view, as articulated by Julia Galef on digital knowledge forum Big Think. Galef argues that we tend to attach false – or rather, excessive, or spurious – meaning to a project or thing based on the amount of effort or resources we have poured into it. This is the sunk cost fallacy. To use an example closer to home, we have spent 2000 CORS bid points – and many hours of anxious bidding – to attain a place in a very popular module. You take it, but later find out that the class is not very enjoyable (the curriculum, let’s say, is explored in a way that does not appeal to you). You have the opportunity to drop it and take another class for just one bid point. But something stops you. If you do this, all that effort you expended would go down the drain. And frankly, you do feel a special connection to this seminar, now that you are finally here and have worked so hard to get in.

Galef would say: Drop it! The bid points and effort you’ve spent getting the module are part of a sunk cost, which you should ignore completely.

But what Ariely, on the other hand, might say: Keep the module, because the effort and points you have spent are likely to make you more motivated to work harder for the module and learn as much from it as possible.

Or that might not be what Ariely would say at all. He might say: Drop it, but use your experiences from bidding this round as a lesson for future bidding experiences.

In any case, I think this example unearths a dimension of complexity to the concept of meaning and motivation: how do we quantify and weigh meaning, especially if we are caught between two or more decisions that each bear seemingly equal meaning to us? Is meaning only generated by previous effort, or can it also be based on future, expected returns? What if learning to grow attached to our projects makes us, in turn, rigid and unwilling to give them up when presented with alternative options that might be more meaningful in future?

My personal answer to these questions is that meaning should not be only determined by personal effort thus far, but also by a spectrum of other things like personal values and convictions, and future possibilities and benefits. For instance, one failed attempt at social entrepreneurship could lead, in future, to an enlightened perspective in taking on a banking job in developing countries; though at the point of disappointment one can only see failure, or the crushing of meaning.

Thus, one should learn to look at the big picture, rather than our present or past efforts. In this way, perhaps, meaning – as measured by the fruits of our cumulative efforts over time – can be maximised in the long run.

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