Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sunk Cost Prolongs Idiocy

Repeating some themes previously discussed, but tying them together a bit more neatly.

Sunk-Cost Fallacy(noun)
The phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.

"Important" Means Never Letting Go

An acquaintance of mine has spent a full decade anguished over a single finite loss. She'd insist that it was a finite IMPORTANT thing. Fair enough. I get it!

But the universe won't bring it back just because she insists and fixates. Tagging phenomena "important" garners no special dispensation in this immersive cosmic swirl of unending creation and destruction we've opted into. We knew the rules going in.

Her friends try to soothe her. None would ever utter the obvious thing they're all thinking: "Let go! Move on!" Contemporary civilization is built upon an immutable law that the whiny must be consoled, and never have their assumptions challenged. While consolation only reinforces the false premise, sinking the person deeper into a mental tarpit, we want to seem helpful much more than we want to actually help. So we reinforce frozen perspectives rather than risk the friction of inducing a shift of perspective (aka "reframing").

Etch-A-Sketch People

Every torturous passing year adds greater incentive to tighten her clasp rather than let go, simply because of sunk cost. If she were to lightly shrug and simply move on with a hopeful spark in her eye - if it were that easy - then what was all that Sturm und Drang for? Opening up and reframing and letting go and moving on would reveal that the closing-down, holding-on, and paralysis was willfully unnecessary. And that is the last thing she wants to reveal to herself. She wants to avoid feeling silly far more than she wants happiness.

So she just keeps doubling down, planting herself so deeply in mental mud that she's become what I call an Etch-A-Sketch Person: so unflinchingly committed to a counterproductive dramatic trope that she'll drop it only upon the ultimate reset (i.e. Etch-A-Sketch shake) of death. She is tightly strapped in for this ride she’s decided to characterize herself as taking.

Improvement Requires Owning Your Shmuckiness

Please don't be an Etch-A-Sketch person. You needn't commit to a preposterously grim pretense of immobility. I've previously explained how we freeze perspective and how effortlessly we can self-liberate via reframing, but the insidious component is sunk cost. If my shackles could be effortlessly cast off, why have I been lavishly lamenting my plight? What was I, a shmuck?"

"What was I, a shmuck?" is the biggest problem.

Why can't adults learn effectively? Because that would mean acknowledging previous ignorance. What was I, a shmuck?

Why can't people change? Because that would mean acknowledging previous stuckedness. What was I, a shmuck?

Why can't people let go? Because that would mean acknowledging previous grasping. What was I, a shmuck?
That asshole Dylan Thomas really messed us all up with "Do not go gentle into that good night...burn and rave...Rage, rage against the dying of the light." NO! Opposing the inevitable is not admirably staunch and feisty. It's just poor mental health. Heed, instead, the incomparably wiser Anthony de Mello!
Why do people double down when caught, deny indisputable facts, and stick with hopeless causes? Commitment! It's a choice: Strap in tenaciously, rather than humbly concede your shmuckiness. Don't worry, your impulses are solid gold, baby. Remain fully inflated at all costs!

A Shmuck Never Has Far to Fall

I've come at this world ass-backwards, always presenting shmuckily. My underlying assumption is that I know nothing, am horribly skewed, deluded, error-prone, and sadly, pathetically clueless. In today's America, I sound like I require medication, if not institutionalization. I suffer from a POOR SELF-IMAGE, an unthinkable proposition for this society. One must fervidly hypnotize oneself back into delusion:
I am powerful and competent and people love me! I am powerful and competent and people love me! I am powerful and competent and people love me!
Stand tall! Straighten your spine! Accept without doubt that you are indisputably above-average in every respect! Be a WINNER, for chrissakes!

Nah. I never did any of that. I did recognize when I was right - because when you're right, you're right - but I never identified as "Mr. Right". I was always a zaggy hairball of wrongness who occasionally spat up an errant gem or twelve. I still feel that way! Have a look at this Slog's subtitle!

I've held onto this framing because it's worked out great. We all must choose between being right or feeling right; being smart or feeling smart; being wise, creative, insightful, or feeling those things. You can’t have it both ways, and I've blithely sacrificed the latter for the former. It was a rough ride, but, finally, teetering on dotage, I enjoy some perqs. I sit at the keyboard and some level of insight somewhat reliably flows. I once dreamt of that (of that HAPPENING, not of being able to be the sort of guy who makes that happen. I want to sing way more than I want to be a singer).

I still stick with this framing, registering my rightness as it arises, without trying to act the part. It doesn’t need to get all over you. One is not, it turns out, compelled to savor one’s own farts through haughtily dilated nostrils. It can feel like play, and be done as if by a child. With unbridled enthusiasm and no grippy grown-up dramatic hooey.

And so I have nowhere to fall. Whenever new information, insight, or perspective reveals that I've been wrong all along, I swoon with delight. Being shown I've been wrong all along fills me with hope that one day I'll feel genuinely right! Who knows, maybe I'll turn this thing around!

The normal cure for feeling shmucky is to fix the feeling. I've always figured it made more sense to strive to become less shmucky. This approach is widely rejected, though, because it leaves people feeling starkly under-elevated. So it's a non-starter.

One advantage I enjoy is laziness. It takes vast energy to create and maintain a lofty self-image. You must strenuously reject fact, truth, change, improvement, and The Universe At Large. But with no self-image to maintain, I'm unattached. While I may occasionally feel smothered by pain and sorrow, I’m not attached to such scenarios. With no sense of obligation to portray Smothered Guy, I can drop it - drop it all! - in any moment without existential crisis. Without sunk cost. Without looking back and saying "What was I, a shmuck?" The answer to that question is eager affirmation. And so I get to enjoy fresh, lithe responsiveness.

Better Cupcakes

Haughty food experts used to newly arrive at Chowhound, pronouncing this or that cupcake "The Best." Period. Truth has been revealed. Thor has spoken!

Inevitably, chowhound B would pipe up, "Nah. Try this other cupcake. It's better!" And chowhound A would grow huffily combative. Because if his cupcake isn't the greatest fucking cupcake, that means he's a shmuck. And, as he will assure you, he is certainly no shmuck. Whence flamewars.

I'd enter the conversation.

"Hey, buddy! :) You really like cupcakes, no?"

"And how!"

"Then wouldn't you want to know about even better ones? Wouldn't that be a welcome outcome? Me, I'm a recognized food expert, but nothing on gawd's green earth would make me happier than for someone to inform me that all my favorite places suck, and then lead me to greater deliciousness, amen. That's my dream! I want it! Don't you want it? Don't you want even better cupcakes?"

"I don't know that his cupcakes are better!"

"Sure, but isn't it worth finding out? Isn't it enticing? Why would you fight so tenaciously against the hope of possibly-more-delicious cupcakes?"

It often worked. Even though I was implying even broader shmuckiness than he'd feared.


I'm abnormally successful at changing people's minds. My success rate, when I'm not being ignored, misunderstood, argued with, patronized to, spat upon, or face-punched, can be as high as 5-10%!

My trick is to deal directly with perspective (framing!). I don't traffic in the usual clich├ęd talking points. I don't shame people or make them feel stupid. I don't ram into them from the opposite direction. Heck, I don't even offer crisply logical argument, which is persuasive only to a computer (and, even then, only computers deliberately programmed to parse argument).

Rather, I try to coax a shift of perspective. You know the old canard of "Make them think they thought of the idea?" This is how that's done. Coax them into a fresh perspective, and let them draw their own conclusions. One can't force a conclusion, but one can certainly induce a shift of perspective (that’s what art is, and coaxing shifts of perspective is also the only viable route for a would-be Messiah).

The Cupcake Dialog was successful more than 5-10% of the time. Maybe a whopping 25%. Though it was often hard to tell, as they'd never come back and admit it. They'd retreat to go lick their wounds. It was never really about cupcakes. It was about misguided notions of who they are and what this life is.

I try hard not to manipulate. So, as I write this, I realize the Cupcake Dialog maybe was too much. First, their sunk cost is enormous, so it's quite a violent drop into sanity. Plus, many people need to feel absolutely fantastic to even get out of bed. Shake them into questioning their infatuation with self-splendor (much less question that status in and of itself) and you can leave them with absolutely nothing, because that’s all they’ve got. It's not always helpful for an Etch-A-Sketch to reset prematurely, in mid-show.

This is why I've started viewing the conceited, the bullies, and the control freaks (have you ever noticed the latter are always the people least deserving to be in control?) as the puny unfortunates they truly are. I frame them as adorable toddlers posing in cheap superhero Halloween costumes. Best to hug them, offer some candy, shut the door, and hope they go knock elsewhere. Nothing else to be done, nothing to, like, change, because, in most cases, if you were to strip off their preposterous cheap garb, you’d behold only trembling gelatin.

Trembling gelatin. My God. No wonder they're terrified.

So even the practice of inducing reframing - aka art - might be yet another hapless Messiah misfire. There really is no good reason to ever, ever raise the house lights. Just talk to the mask. Always talk to the mask. Never stop talking to the mask.

Problem is, I’ve conditioned myself - via titanic effort - to transcend that. I look behind the mask, and speak, sotto voce, directly to the mask-wearer, and have developed clever means to help people break free of facade. I went through a lot (a LOT a lot) to discover that clear vision. But it’s as useful as having mastered Neptunian. Because I am not here to sadistically expose trembling gelatin.

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