Byron's Babbles

Talkin’ Turkey About Sunk Cost Bias

  I am always amazed at how much I learn on my son and I’s annual turkey hunt. First let me answer the big question on everyone’s mind. Did you get one? I am happy to report that my son did! I did not. For the second year in a row Heath got a turkey and I didn’t. This was his fifth turkey in the seven years we have been hunting together. Not bad for a fourteen year old. In my defense, I did not even take a shot. I saw a bunch of turkeys and witnessed some great wildlife shows, but never a gobbler close enough to harvest. 

When turkey hunting there is a great deal of time in solitude for thinking. My favorite time is the first thing in the morning. We get to the woods at 5:00 a.m. and then watch and listen as the woods comes alive. First there are the birds, then the occasional deer, and then the gobble of a roosted turkey. Our two days of turkey hunting each year remind us of all the wonderful creations that God has made. Though my seat attached to my turkey vest is not as comfortable as a yoga mat, I am not any less mindful when in this state of thought and meditation. There are so many things that run through your mind when sitting in total silence and not being able to move. It is exhilerating and I am already looking forward to next year. 

On our first morning of the hunt, Saturday, we went to the river bottom along the levee. My son, Heath, set up along the field’s edge that separated the levee from a woods (the turkeys typically come off the levee and graze the field while heading to the woods for the day). I set up about a mile south of him. We both had a great show of turkeys that first morning. I even had a hen come right past me close enough that I could of reached out and touched her. Those that know me are probably amazed that I am able to sit that still in my full camo glory! Anyway, neither of us got a long beard (tom turkey) close enough for harvesting. 

Later that afternoon, my wife took Heath to a baseball game (he pitched a save, by the way), and I went back near where we had hunted in the morning. There was a tremendous showing of birds. There was a group of 11 that appeared – four long beards, three jakes (young male), and four hens. They worked the field in front of us for two hours, but we could never call them in close enough for a shot. Then there was a single Tom who strutted around the field like he owned it, but again, not close enough. It was a tremendous show that Walt Disney would have been proud to have filmed for his nature films. But, still, they stayed along the levee side. 

The next morning, you guessed it, I went back to the levee. Heath, on the other hand, went to another location. You guessed it, at 8:30 he harvested a bird. I was texted a picture (seen at the top of this post) and was thrilled – the goal is always for Heath to get a bird – I am secondary. Once again, however, I had the greatest show ever. Turkeys were coming off the levee right and left – lots of them. You guessed it, though, they were not interested in coming to me. The Toms were with hens and not interested in what I had to offer. Anyway, it was another great morning of solitude and thought. At least I kept telling myself that!

Toward the end of the morning, as the turkeys were moving out of site I got to thinking about “sunk cost bias.” Was I falling into the trap that leaders fall into. As I thought about this I realized that turkey hunting might be one of the greatest case studies to teach this because I kept getting drawn back to this same area. I knew there were lots of turkeys here. In fact three of Heath’s turkeys he harvested in past years had been taken very near where I was sitting. Also, I had already spent a lot of time there this year. This year, however, the turkeys were just not moving across the fields in the same way – this is what really makes turkey hunting so exciting and facinating. The turkeys never act the same from year to year. Does this sound like any of the organizations you lead? Yet, for some reason I was drawn to this place. Part of it was the fact that it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Hemlocks were blooming, Blue Jays were playing in the trees above me, a squirrel was hopping from tree to tree, and a Bald Eagle was soaring above. It is just a glorious place to be.

Still, there were all these turkeys. When we regrouped for the afternoon and Heath’s turkey had been processed it was decided to go to another location for the afternoon. “Sunk Cost Bias” had been resisted; at least for now. At 4:30 p.m., after not seeing or hearing any turkeys, it was decided, you guessed it, to go back to the levee. I know what you are thinking: this guy is an idiot because he knows the turkeys won’t come close enough. You are right, I was giving into sunk cost bias. I knew we would see birds, but I would never get a shot. Yet, I was drawn by the fact I had invested so much time there and knew there were turkeys. I had become the poster child of what sunk cost bias is: The sunk cost bias is manifested when we have a greater tendency to continue an endeavour once an investment in money, effort or time has been made.

I was first introduced to this thinking at Harvard University by Dr. Monica Higgins when studying a case study of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedies. Reasoning that further investment is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested will be lost otherwise, not taking into consideration the overall losses involved in the further investment. During the Mount Everest tragedy the sunk cost bias was carried out on two fronts: 1. At the time of starting for the summit, some thought the conditions were not right, but they had come all this way and were not going to wait; and, 2. Many that died did not summit by the 2:00 p.m. cutoff time (the time set to turn around if a summit had not been made yet) but went ahead and summited as much as two hours late. Again, the thought of “I’ve invested all this time, money, effort, et cetera and by golly I am going to summit Mount Everest” was at play there. 

Obviously, my life was not on the line, but by going back to the levee for one last ditch effort at the end of our last day of hunting was giving into sunk cost bias. You guessed it, too, we saw a lot of turkeys but none came close enough. What I was failing to realize is that moving back to the levee would most likely result in the loss of much more time and not getting a turkey. I was thinking short-term, not long-term, and simply trying to avoid not getting a turkey, which was fallacious thinking. It was really thinking from a defensive posture and not an offensive one. This experience has really caused me to think about the strategic and academic plans we are carrying out in the schools I lead. Do we have areas of sunk cost bias? It begs taking an introspective look.

When we make a hopeless inventment of time, treasures, or talents we sometimes reason: We can’t stop now, otherwise what we have invested so far will be lost. This is true, of course, but irrelevant to whether we should continue on with the plan. If the plan will not work that everything invested will be lost regardless. Therefore, it really is irrational to continue, but yet we (at least me) continue on anyway. The rational thing for me to do on our turkey hunt would have been to try a new spot. Why didn’t I make the rationale choice: Our decisions are tainted by the emotional investments we accumulate, and the more we invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it. As an emotional human, my aversion to loss often leads me right into the sunk cost bias. We need to instead look at the loss from a growth mindset and consider it learning and knowledge gained.

Luckily, we all have the ability to reflect, study, and regret past actions. So, in my case, I need to remember what I did on this turkey hunt and apply it to my professional life as a leader. Do you have areas in your personal or professional life where sunk cost bias is hurting your ability to move forward? If you’re not sure, might I suggest an early morning meditation time in a woods as it comes to life at the start of the day?

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