The Sunk Cost Trap on TV: Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope

A few months ago on the popular TV series “Scandal,” the fictional President of the United States fell into the sunk cost trap:

We have to get Olivia back, not just because I love her, not just because having her out there is a threat to national security. There are soldiers who are never coming home because I tried to get her back. Someone’s father, someone’s husband. I have killed so many mothers’ sons trying to get her back. The flags placed on the coffins where they lay are there because they had the courage to give their lives and I did not have the courage to give Liv’s, so she has to come back because their sacrifice damn well has to mean something. They cannot have died for nothing. They cannot have gone to their death for no other reason than I asked them to.

If you’ll remember from my post about the sunk cost trap a couple of years ago:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted.

Do you see the parallels?

Now, I totally get why the writers of Scandal couldn’t have the fictional President of the United States not continue to try and rescue Olivia Pope (how could there be a show without Olivia?), but I wish they didn’t have to write it in this way. In actuality, based on what he’s saying, it sounds like he’s come to the realization that sending more troops to war is a bad idea, so right there — right at the point — is when he should stop sending troops to war. Right then, he has the knowledge that continuing down the same path is the wrong thing to do, so he should stop. His rationalization for continuing is the sunk cost trap.

The thing that worries me is that by having things play out like this, it’s almost affirming that what the President is doing is the “right” thing or that it is the only choice he has. Certainly, there are plenty of other courses of actions he could have chose (many that probably wouldn’t make for good TV). Most people probably won’t find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to continue a war (or start a war, for that matter) for dubious reasons (or any reason, for that matter), but seeing stuff like this on TV, in a way, gives people an idea of how they can do things. I’d much rather popular entertainment actually err on the side of educating viewers, if it’s going to incorporate lessons of this nature.

I can already hear you yelling at me that this doesn’t make for good TV or entertainment (I know, I alluded to that earlier), but can’t we find a way to blend effective decision-making with entertainment, so that while we’re being entertained, we’re also learning something, too?

Is the “Hollywood Model” Really Something New?

There was a great article in the New York Times the other week called: “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work.” The author uses Hollywood to make the case that this is how work is going to be in the near future for everyone (not in Hollywood):

This approach to business is sometimes called the “Hollywood model.” A project is identified; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the task; then the team disbands. This short-­term, project-­based business structure is an alternative to the corporate model, in which capital is spent up front to build a business, which then hires workers for long-­term, open-­ended jobs that can last for years, even a lifetime. It’s also distinct from the Uber-­style “gig economy,” which is designed to take care of extremely short-­term tasks, manageable by one person, typically in less than a day.

This method sounds really intelligent in that it would — theoretically — save a business quite a lot of money. However, as I was reading it, two things came to mind. The first: this method also sounds eerily familiar. Remember “SWAT teams” (in business)?

“In business, it means a group of ‘experts’ (often fat guys in suits) assembled to solve a problem or tackle an opportunity” says USC’s Logan.

Or what about “Tiger teams?”

A ‘tiger team’ is also a group of experts—specifically a bunch of tech geeks entrusted with curing your computer ills.

While it doesn’t perfectly map onto the Hollywood Model, both of these business “buzzwords” already seem to account for aspects of the Hollywood Model. It may be that the Hollywood Model will become another business fad in the same way that SWAT teams or Tigers teams was/is. Or, maybe the Hollywood Model will have staying power and it will live beyond a fad and become something as normal as the idea as working in a full-time job or a part-time job.

The second thing that came to mind upon reading about the Hollywood Model: Project Management. Granted, the last time I had formal education in PM was almost three years ago, but I don’t remember hearing/reading about this idea of a short-term team. That’s not completely fair. Yes, of course we learned about teams coming together for a short period of time, but it wasn’t written about in the same way that it was in this NYT article. I’d be interested to hear from folks in the PM-academic circles on this.

Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

Visualization and Sports: Accounting for Errors in Performance

There was a great article in Pacific Standard magazine last month that I really enjoyed called: “The Game Slowed Down.” It talks a great deal about visualization and sports. In reading through it, I was somewhat amazed at just how mainstream the idea of visualization has become.

“Mental rehearsal” isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but as I think back to my brief time as an elite athlete, visualization was hardly spoken of and certainly not openly encouraged by coaches or teammates. Lucky for me that it was something my parents taught me, so I had that early exposure to it, but I certainly think I would have benefited (and my teammates would have benefited) from group sessions where we all sat down as a team and went to “practice” by closing our eyes and visualizing our successful outcomes.

On that note, there was one passage in the article that pleasantly surprised me:

During the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, 18-year-old Shiffrin was asked if she was nervous about participating in her first Olympics. Her response was, well, these aren’t my first Olympics:

I’ve envisioned this moment for quite a while. I’ve visualized myself on the top step of the podium, and on the third step of the podium. I’ve envisioned myself crashing, because I know what mistake I (would have) made to crash, and I know I’m not going to do that in the race.

Running reps through her head—every sliver of ice on every turn, every scenario in which something didn’t go exactly right—prepared her for the biggest event of her life. When she made a mistake halfway through her second run, causing both of her skis to leave the ground—a big no-no in downhill slalom—she didn’t panic, over-correct the error, and tumble into the snow. Instead, she stretched out those vital milliseconds through practiced over-cranking, shifted her body back into the correct position, and quickly got back on track for the rest of the run.

That’s brilliant. When I used to visualize my performances, I don’t remember accounting for “errors” in my performance, but it certainly makes sense that one would want to be prepared for all scenarios and to do that, one would want to prepare for “errors” in one’s performance.

This reminds me of the study (that I can’t seem to find at the moment) about positive self-talk. Most people think that before a performance (be that sports, musical, or even a job interview), it’s best to tell one’s self that one is awesome or that one is great and that undoubtedly, they’re going to perform well. However, this study found that, instead of pumping one’s self up in this manner, it’s actually better if one asks one’s self how one is going to perform well. That is, if you’re applying for a job, instead of saying to yourself that you’re awesome and that you’re a perfect fit for the job, it’s better if you ask yourself how you’re going to get this job or how you’re going to do well in the interview to get the job. The research showed that by asking yourself these questions, it prompts your brain to come up with strategies or ways to do perform well.

Parents: Stop Saying “You’re OK!”

I’ve been a parent for more than a year. There’s so much I could talk about, but today, I want to make a plea to parents (and anyone who interacts with children, for that matter): STOP SAYING YOU’RE OKAY or YOU’RE FINE!

Now that the weather’s turned, most of the parents and little ones that have been inside protecting against the harsh winter (at least in Ottawa, that is), are out and about at playgrounds and parks. Naturally, as there are more ‘dangerous’ new things for children to interact with, they’re bound to hurt themselves in some way. When little Jonny bangs his head on the stairs of the play structure — before he starts to cry — mom (it’s usually mom, but when dad is on Jonny-duty, dad does it, too), will say “You’re ok, you’re fine,” in what’s meant to pacify little Jonny. Mom thinks that she’s helping Jonny by telling him that he’s okay, but what she doesn’t realize is she’s stunting Jonny’s growth.

Let’s go back to the moment that Jonny bumps his head. If mom doesn’t say anything, maybe Jonny doesn’t even notice that he’s hurt himself (that is, maybe he didn’t hurt himself enough that he noticed — do you cry every time you bang a limb on a doorway, cabinet, or wall?) and Jonny continues on playing. Or maybe Jonny does start to cry because he’s hurt himself. Is that a problem? Do you expect little Jonny to go through his entire life without hurting himself? That is, do you really think that you thwarting his moment of pain by interrupting him and telling him he’s okay is really helping? Let me tell you — it’s not. It’s actually harmful. By intervening, mom is unintentionally telling Jonny that it’s not okay to feel pain. Mom is telling Jonny that feeling pain is bad.

When Jonny hurts himself and he’s upset — he’s upset. Let him be upset. Allow him the space to be upset that he’s hurt himself and experiencing pain. He’s allowed to feel pain. Most times, Jonny will cry for mere seconds and then he’s right back to running around the playground as if nothing happened. If mom intervenes and tells him, “You’re OK,” mom is signifying to Jonny that this ‘event’ of hurting one’s self is important and needs more attention. It doesn’t.

When Jonny hurts himself on the playground and mom intervenes telling him that he’s okay, what’s really going on? Mom is uncomfortable and when she’s telling Jonny, “You’re OK,” she’s actually saying that to comfort herself.

So, the next time Jonny hurts himself on the playground, I’d encourage parents (or caregivers) out there to, before you tell him that he’s okay, think about why it is that you’re telling Jonny he’s okay. Is it for him or is it for you?

Where’s the Positive Music?

I’ve written before about the importance in choosing our words carefully (here and here) and so along those lines, today I’m interested in lyrics. Specifically, musical lyrics. A few months ago, there was a perfect tweet from Ezra Klein that captures my feelings on this matter:

As a result, I’m interest in finding songs that are more along the lines of this one:

The lyrics:

I love myself the way I am,
there’s nothing I need to change
I’ll always be the perfect me
there’s nothing to rearrange
I’m beautiful and capable
of being the best me I can
And I love myself just the way I am

I love you the way you are
there’s nothing you need to do
When I feel the love inside myself
it’s easy to love you
Behind your fears, your rage and tears
I see your shining star
And I love you just the way you are

I love the world the way it is,
’cause I can clearly see
That all the things I judge are done
by people just like me
So ’til the birth of peace on earth
that only love can bring
I’ll help it grow by loving everything

I love myself the way I am
and still I want to grow.
But change outside can only come
when deep inside I know
I’m beautiful and capable,
of being the best me I can,
And I love myself just the way I am
I love myself just the way I am

Now that’s beautiful! A song about loving one’s self and the world. While it doesn’t have the same beat as anything you’d find on the radio today, singing those words over and over would be a far better affirmation than the songs that Klein is alluding to in the tweet above.

My question for you: are there songs out there like this one that have a more “positive” spin to them, but don’t necessarily invoke God? 

I say that because when I used to look for other songs like this one, I’d often find myself in Christian music. I have nothing against Christian music, I’d just prefer not to be continuously invoking Him or God, while I’m singing. I should say, I don’t mind a gentle nod or reference to God/Spirit like is done in this song by Josefs.

What if We Treated Prisoners Like Humans?

There was an excellent article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about a maximum-security prison in Norway. Though, when you read about this prison, it sounds nothing like any prison you’ve probably heard about in the US or Canada:

Norway’s newest prison was marked by a modest sign that read, simply, HALDEN ­FENGSEL. There were no signs warning against picking up hitchhikers, no visible fences. Only the 25-­foot-­tall floodlights rising along the edges hinted that something other than grazing cows lay ahead.

[…]

I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

If you think the description of the appearance is surprising, I’d encourage you to read the article as the journalist who wrote the article did a wonderful job painting the picture of what it’s like inside the prison. Here’s another snippet about what it was like to be with the most dangerous prisoners (i.e. violent crimes like murder, assault, rape, etc.) that I found… enlightening:

I met some of the prisoners of Unit A one afternoon in the common room of an eight-­man cell block. I was asked to respect the inmates’ preferences for anonymity or naming, and for their choices in discussing their cases with me. The Norwegian news media does not often identify suspects or convicts by name, so confirming the details of their stories was not always possible. I sat on an orange vinyl couch next to a wooden shelving unit with a few haphazard piles of board games and magazines and legal books. On the other side of the room, near a window overlooking the unit’s gravel yard, a couple of inmates were absorbed in a card game with a guard.

An inmate named Omar passed me a freshly pressed heart-­shaped waffle over my shoulder on a paper plate, interrupting an intense monologue directed at me in excellent English by Chris Giske, a large man with a thick goatee and a shaved head who was wearing a heavy gold chain over a T-­shirt that strained around his barrel-­shaped torso.

The thing that struck me most about this article was the underlying philosophy of the Norwegian prison system: prisoners are humans, too. Think about for a minute what it might like to be in a maximum-security prison in the US. How much freedom do you think you’d have? I’ve never visited a maximum-security prison, but based on what I’ve read, it’s certainly not somewhere I’d like to spend my afternoons. What’s worse is that some of the people in those kinds of facilities are meant to reintegrate into society when they’ve completed their sentence. If they spend so much time by themselves and then when they do get to socialize, they do so in a manner that would be wholly unacceptable when they’re ‘out,’ how can we, as a society, expect them to be ‘better’ once they’re out of prison?

I’m not arguing for every prison in the US and Canada to look switch over and look like this one in Norway (though, imagine what that would look like), but I think it’s important for us to consider the way we treat our fellow humans — even if they’ve done some unspeakable acts. Even if you’re not willing to consider treating someone like that in a more humane way, consider that it could be you. And before you get all high and mighty, remember that not all prisoners are guilty of what they’ve been accused of and subsequently convicted for.

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).