Hero Narratives and Plan Continuation Bias and Turning Back Before It’s Too Late
Usually I take a bit more time over a blog post than this, but I’m rushing this one out because it’s highly relevant today in a way it might not be by tomorrow. (As I’m writing this it’s Christmas Eve, 2020.)
A while ago I listened to this excellent podcast by Tim Harford about plan continuation bias. It’s a particularly dangerous bias that sometimes costs lives. In short: people plan to do something, and are so fixed on sticking to their plan that they risk everything, including in extreme cases the lives of themselves and others, to achieve it. (In aviation it’s also known as get-there-itis.)
In 2020, most of us have had to cancel or change plans or radically reset expectations many times over. In the UK, restrictions to reduce the spread of Covid-19 over Christmas were announced after many people had made their arrangements to be with family, bought food, booked train tickets and set their hearts on seeing each other after a long time apart.
And, talking to a friend who has had to plan and re-plan, and now has another unexpected thing to cope with in the mix, something occurred to me:
Your life is not an Indiana Jones movie.
In Hollywood films, the more obstacles the hero faces before reaching their goal, the more valuable the goal becomes. Which is great for the audience, because the filmmaker is creating drama, and higher stakes means more drama. And because we’ve grown up with this somewhat predictable narrative, the more obstacles the hero overcomes, the more we expect them to succeed.
Obviously I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the mechanism has very little to do with Hollywood and has a lot in common with the Sunk Cost Fallacy (“I’ve invested so much in this I can’t stop now”) and the Ikea Effect (“I put personal effort into this so I value it more”).
Anyway, I said I was going to be quick because this is important. If you have plans for tomorrow, or even today, it’s not too late to change them. If achieving your goal is beset by difficulties and increased risks on all sides, that shouldn’t increase its intrinsic value. If anything, it should cause us to question whether it’s worth continuing.
So step back if you can. Think about (or ideally write down — putting stuff on paper creates more honesty than letting thoughts swirl around fighting with each other) pros and cons, risks and consequences. Be honest about how much of wanting to continue is about pride, ego, stubbornness, whatever else keeps driving you forward other than the result itself. Do the thing you’ll be proud of next week or next year, even if it feels like defeat in the moment.