Monday, June 29, 2015

The undone

The other day I was home alone working on my house when I stopped to make myself lunch.  I almost never sit down to eat when it's only me; I'll just get back to doing whatever I was doing, wolfing down whatever I have slapped together as quickly as possible. I have a right to eat this way. I see sitting down to eat as a social occasion, which makes sitting down by myself to eat an absurdity. As my friend Scott Merlino once pointed out to me, men do not dine alone, they feed.

Anyway, at some point during this period the UPS truck showed up with a delivery and I went out to sign for it. Later, back at work, I suddenly remembered something: I had not finished my lunch. I thought briefly about where I had been when the truck had pulled up, and returned to find one last bite of the sandwich sitting on my miter saw. I blew off the saw dust, popped it in my mouth, and got on with my day.

Later still, back at work again my mind drifted to this question: Why did I recall with such clarity that I had not finished my sandwich?  Why did I recall it at all?  It came like a message from God. God can not be bothered to remind me where I put my coffee cup, or the measurement I had made just before the phone rang. What's so important about the last bite of my sandwich?

Here is the answer that occurred to me: I had accepted making and eating my lunch as a project, a task to be completed. Whenever we do this, the mind opens up an account, a mental line of credit, which will not be closed until it has been paid off. During the period in which the task is incomplete, there will be a nagging feeling of something owed, something left undone.

Toward the end of Philosophy 180 this spring my students and I were thinking a lot about the role of emotion in rational cognition. It's a great topic, not the least because the more you think about it the more you realize how little we understand what an emotion even is. In thinking about the sandwich question it occurred to me that the nagging feeling of the undone as well as the satisfying feeling of accomplishing a task could be emotions evolved specifically to facilitate task-oriented behavior.

I like to think about how my dog sees the world. I think it is right to describe him as engaging in goal directed behavior, like running off strangers or begging for a biscuit. He can't assign himself a task, though. If we are interrupted from playing fetch by the UPS man, the goal simply becomes to run him off the place. When the truck drives away, he will lie down feeling satisfied. But he will not hear a voice saying: You did not finish your fetch.

Imagine if our ability to recollect whether we have finished a task were no better than our recollection of other information, like the name of the person you just met or DeMorgan's rules or the capital of Delaware. Did you finish yesterday's homework? Hmmm... I can't remember. Dude....what?

Clearly this ability to set ourselves tasks, long and short term, and bring them to fruition is something very distinctive about human beings and we rightly count it as a virtue to be cultivated and admired in individuals. Indeed those who fail to develop this ability to a high degree will simply fail to thrive in this world. But this ability seems to come at a price, a dark and dangerous liability.

You are probably familiar with the idea of sunk costs. A sunk cost is just something you have spent, that can not be recovered. It can be money, time, effort, or anything else of value. In the context of a self-appointed task, it is extremely difficult to recognize sunk costs. Scores of intelligent, highly capable people have done incalculable harm through an inability to recognize them.  Everyone has said this to herself at one point or another: I have worked so hard, have come so far, invested so much, I simply can not quit now.  This is the voice of the undone.

Why is it so difficult to ignore sunk costs? Why can't we just do what is rational, which is to consider our present condition without reference to the path that got us here, and decide the best course of action from this point forward? Part of the answer is that it is very difficult for us to be objective in such circumstances. Are we changing course now because the cause is lost, or do we simply lack the courage of our convictions?  It is often not easy to know.  When we accuse ourselves or others of letting sunk costs influence our reasoning, we often do so only on the basis of another arch bias, hindsight.

But the answer I like best is provided by the Meaning Maintenance Model of human motivation, which posits that humans are essentially meaning makers, and that our decisions and actions are best understood as attempts to create and preserve meaning in our lives.  What 'meaning' actually means in this context is not at all settled, but we can at least say that it is always relative to a representational framework, one of the most common being a narrative or story.

When we say that pursuing lost causes and justifying sunk costs is irrational, we do so with respect to another framework, namely the framework of probability and expected utility. But if humans really have a fundamental need for their lives to make a kind of narrative sense, then this is too simple. From this perspective, the undone is an abomination, a story that simply

G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy


  1. "simply..." what, dude? Simply what?!

    Randy, I really like this post and your inferences about why we find it so very difficult to let go of projects which it is rational to let go of, but into which we've put so much of ourselves. I had a slightly different memory reading your story and it's also about a story which ends one way, but could have ended another way, but for my decision to cut sunk costs... waiting for the bus. Back in Toronto on a very cold (even by Toronto standards) evening on my way home from campus, I found myself waiting on a bus at the subway stop... lots of us were waiting, in the cold, waiting for a late bus, our bus, stuck somewhere out in the snow behind other motorists stuck out in the snow. At one point, any point really, it seemed to occur to each one of us that we might be better off going back to the subway and finding a different, non-bus-dependent, route to our destinations. I recall asking myself this question this way, "well, I've already spent 40 minutes waiting for this bus... if I leave now, it'll just show up and take others on their way, others with the patience to wait a few minutes more." I asked myself this a few times more until it was 60 minutes late and then finally decided to go. I opted to walk, since my destination wasn't that far away... it was just really cold and dark and I was tired. About 3/4 of the way there, maybe 15 minutes after I chose to cut sunk costs invested in waiting, the bus drove past...

    With hindsight, as you say, the decision to wait a few minutes more might have been the better one and the invested time might not have felt as "sunk" because the project would have been brought to completion as intended, with me riding in the warm bus the last several blocks home. With hindsight, and the capacity to reason counter-factually, though, the sting of those sunk costs being cut seemed worse. It seemed only with the passing of the bus, and the awareness that I could have been on it, did the time invested waiting even seem like sunk.

  2. Chris, thanks, yes that waiting for the bus example is a great one and deceptively complicated, as is the emotional fall out depending on the results. Similar to being lost in the wilderness and having to decide whether to stay put so you can be more easily found (assuming someone is looking for you) or try to bushwhack your way out (assuming they are not.) The real problem in either case may not be the desire not to have wasted the time invested in staying put, so much as having little basis for deciding between competing explanatory models of your actual situation.