Why we keep hanging onto the past – and what that costs us

For a couple days this week, I found myself highly motivated to hold my head relatively still, so as not to aggravate the massive headache that had wrapped itself relentlessly around it. I needed a fairly mindless way to pass the time. My partner had been playing the Storybook Brawl game, which meant I knew how it worked, and it’s free, so why not?

In Storybook Brawl, you “buy” fairytale-inspired characters from a magical shop, maybe cast a spell or two on them, then sit back and watch them “battle” another person’s characters. If your team loses, you lose “life points.” You’re playing against seven other people, and after many rounds of such battles, the last person standing is the winner.

It’s a clever game, with amusing characters. You can focus on playing princesses and princes, or tree people, or monsters, wizards, magical animals, or any combination. And when I say the characters are “fairytale-inspired,” I mean that very loosely, because they include, for example, Romeo and Juliet. That’s my favorite clever bit – if your Juliet dies before your Romeo, then when your Romeo dies, your Juliet returns! And if your team happens to have multiple Juliets and multiple Romeos, the “brawl” goes on and on.

trojan_donkeyI discovered that I’m pretty good at the beginning of the game, but by the mid-game I’m falling behind. Why is that? I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m too slow to trade in my weaker characters when more powerful ones become available. If I’ve invested a lot of spells in my “Trojan Donkey,” for example, I’m reluctant to part with him.

Which brings me to my topic for today: the sunk-cost fallacy. Usually we think about this in terms of money that’s already been spent, or effort that’s already been made. Even though our past spending and efforts are done with, people generally keep taking them into account when deciding on future spending. They don’t want to cut their losses, even though it may be the more rational course of action.

Wikipedia gives an example of a family going to a baseball game but realizing after a few innings that they aren’t enjoying themselves. Do they get up and leave, finding something nicer to do with the hour or two they regained? Or do they feel like doing so would mean they wasted the money they spend on the tickets, so they’d better stick around? Rationally, the first option makes the most sense, but the second option is all too common.

But money and effort aren’t the only resources that matter to us. Probably our most important resource of all is meaning, having something be meaningful to us. People can be willing to sacrifice their lives to save their children or defend their country, and that’s because giving their life an ultimate and undeniable meaning can be even more important than life itself.

One of the most important – and effective – things our leaders do for us is to make sense of the many things that happen in the world. They create meaning from the facts, and they offer it to us. If we like the meaning they’ve described, we give them our trust and loyalty in return, and that lets them channel our emotions and actions in directions they find useful – hopefully, directions that meet our needs.

So when a meaning we’ve already invested in becomes less valuable, people experience that as a loss. They can resist it vigorously and even angrily.

I think that’s a whole lot of what’s going on in America right now. Many, many people are heavily invested in the idea of America that we learned when we were growing up: a land where anyone (in practice, Western Europeans) could come to shake off the shackles of Old World oppression, do whatever they want, and thrive, “with liberty and justice for all.” Now, however, we find ourselves with constant reminders doing whatever we want does not necessarily lead to thriving, and “liberty” and “justice for all” aren’t always compatible.

Like everyone else, white Americans want to feel proud of their ancestors! We know that it was hard, very hard, for many of them to leave their homes, travel across the ocean, knowing they might never see their families and friends again, and settle in a new land. And then many of them had to repeat the cycle again, generation after generation, moving further and further west, gambling everything they had, learning to farm in new terrains, among new people, until the entire continent had been settled. What a big investment!

Unfortunately, the truth is that these hard-working and well-intentioned ancestors were claiming land that wasn’t exactly empty. Our government stole it from its owners. Our prosperity came at the expense of those who had lived for millennia on these “fruited plains” – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people kidnapped from their homes in Africa to work the plantations in the South.

And now we live in an Age of Reckoning. At some level, I think most Americans agree that all human beings deserve respect and dignity. Many people have been working to give voice to those whose families’ experiences have been different from our own, so that we can understand their perspectives and try to make things better. Many white Americans have made a point to watch PBS shows by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or to read the latest books by Asian and Latino/a and African immigrants and their children. Many of us are trying.

The tricky part is that doing justice to all the people whose ancestors were displaced or exploited by our own ancestors means we have to loosen our grip on the meaning we’ve been wringing from our heritage.

Our immigrant and pioneer ancestors were generally not Bad People, even when the decisions they made were, collectively, catastrophic for others. But that’s more subtle than most people want. It’s pretty difficult to understand that bad outcomes can come from the everyday actions of a lot of people doing their best.

That means when we try to talk about things like systemic racism, we run into some barriers. First, many people feel like they’re being personally accused of racism, because they don’t necessarily understand what the “systemic” part means. They don’t really “get” that it’s possible for bad things to happen to people of color without (many or most) white people really intending for bad things to happen to them. But second, when they hear an explanation of systemic racism, it may discredit part of their personal identities that they value, like, “America is special,” or that our pioneer ancestors heroically brought civilization to the native people or tamed a wild and empty land. In that case, accepting the idea of systemic racism means they’re losing something valuable.

But that’s another example of the sunk-cost fallacy. We may have invested a lot of our sense of meaning into our ideas about America and our ancestors, and we can continue to cling to that meaning simply because of our past investments, not because it’s doing us any good in the future. In other words, to coin a very awkward phrase, it’s a case of “throwing good meaning after bad.”

Imagine what a rewarding sense of meaning we could have, instead, from correcting past mistakes and creating a future that we can personally be proud of. Let’s remind our leaders to make it clear to all of us that we do have this opportunity – to make new and better meanings for the idea of America. Rather than focusing on our imagined losses, let’s get excited about building a real future.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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