Ignore the sunk costs


Jason Collins


April 7, 2014

Edge has a great set of short notes by various authors on how Daniel Kahneman has influenced them. It is worth flicking through them all, but excerpts from my two favourites are below.

First, some excellent advice via Jason Zweig:

Anyone who has ever collaborated with him tells a version of this story: You go to sleep feeling that Danny and you had done important and incontestably good work that day. You wake up at a normal human hour, grab breakfast, and open your email. To your consternation, you see a string of emails from Danny, beginning around 2:30 a.m. The subject lines commence in worry, turn darker, and end around 5 a.m. expressing complete doubt about the previous day’s work.

You send an email asking when he can talk; you assume Danny must be asleep after staying up all night trashing the chapter. Your cellphone rings a few seconds later. “I think I figured out the problem,” says Danny, sounding remarkably chipper. “What do you think of this approach instead?”

The next thing you know, he sends a version so utterly transformed that it is unrecognizable: It begins differently, it ends differently, it incorporates anecdotes and evidence you never would have thought of, it draws on research that you’ve never heard of. If the earlier version was close to gold, this one is hewn out of something like diamond: The raw materials have all changed, but the same ideas are somehow illuminated with a sharper shift of brilliance.

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck. _How did he do that? How could _anybody _do that? _When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

Second, Eric Kandel (an 84 year-old Nobel laureate):

Daniel Kahneman has not yet influenced my work on snails and mice, but I am only in an early point in my career and I still look forward to exploring his ideas in a molecular biological context in the future.