I’ve studied all this time. I’ve racked up student loans. My family have supported me during my studies. I always wanted to be a scientist. Sunk costs.
All phrases I have heard during one to one sessions and on development courses. Often spoken by people who start the sentence with “I think I should move on but…”. They are examples of the intellectual, financial, personal and vocational costs that we have put into our career so far. It is strange that this investment can be the very thing holding us back. These are all an example of a sunk cost – something we have already paid for.
Sunk cost fallacy
When we cling to the investment we or others have made as a reason to carry on, even if it hurts us, we have fallen into the sunk cost fallacy. As the Behavioral Economic site has it:
Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behaviour or endeavour as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort)
The new Terminator movie is coming out (number 6!). Now I love the films 1 & 2 but I was about to put myself through the 3-5 with a feeling of dread because that’s what you do right? Luckily saved by nerd-in-training number 2 who explained it was set up so I don’t need to! But humans aren’t great at applying logic when they have ‘skin in the game’. RH Thales used the example of driving through a blizzard to watch a gig because you bought the ticket :
If the costs outweigh the benefits, the extra costs incurred (inconvenience, time or even money) are held in a different mental account than the one associated with the ticket transaction
Feelings versus logic?
So how do we avoid it? I often work with fabulous postdocs who request a one to one. They are uncertain about where to go next. They ‘feel’ they need to move on. Reasons include not being happy, the role not being what they thought it would be, it is an uncertain existence, wanting to make a greater impact amongst others.
And then arrive the boatload (technical term) of ‘buts’. Some of these are listed above. Some of these buts may need to be viewed as ‘sunk costs’. It could well be time to move on.
I think the key here is really listening to the language. It is their feelings that are rising to the surface, alerting their owner to the fact they may well be pretty fed up in their role. I guess I fought against gut feelings versus logic for a long time (always the physicist …) but as scientists are finding out our gut is pretty clever too!
You are not alone
Are we experiencing the sunk cost fallacy or are our ‘buts’ sensible? To be honest when I am in this situation the only way for me to move forward is to talk it through. I am a classic extrovert in the MBTI sense. I seek people to talk through the pros and cons of a situation.
If you prefer a more introverted approach you can use tools such as SWOT or a simple table to visualise the reality of the situation.
If you are still second guessing yourself then it could be time to seek out someone who can provide a gentle but challenging discussion. I’d choose someone who isn’t too vested – they might have their own sunk costs invested in your career!
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