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Perseverance is important, but so too is knowing when it’s time to walk away

May 20th, 2024 9:35 PM

Perseverance is important, but so too is knowing when it’s time to walk away Image
Donald Trump repeats many phrases to his supporters. Daniel Kahneman believed that familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth in people’s minds.

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MY last column explored some life lessons to be gleaned from cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who passed away in March at the age of 90.

Here are three more lessons from Kahneman that can help us to navigate life’s complexities.

Familiar lies feel true

‘A reliable way to make people believe a lie is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth,’ wrote Kahneman.

Kahneman’s message has long been understood by marketers, propagandists, and authoritarian politicians.

Indeed, Kahneman noted that people who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase ‘the body temperature of a chicken’ were more likely to accept as true the statement that ‘the body temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees’ (or any other arbitrary number).

Why? ‘The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true,’ noted Kahneman.

The more we hear something, the more it feels like truth.

It’s a mental shortcut – familiar information is easier for our brains to process, making it seem effortless and potentially true.

What has this got to do with mental health? A lot. Someone with poor self-esteem might repeatedly tell themselves they are stupid, ugly, unlovable.

A depressed person might repeatedly tell themselves that things are hopeless, that nothing will ever change.

These statements are untrue, but they are familiar. Thus, they feel true.

Take a look at some of your own automatic thoughts and beliefs. Are they really true? Or are they merely familiar thoughts that have, over time, gotten mistaken for truths?

Be wary of sunk costs

Kahneman often warned about the so-called sunk costs fallacy. Sunk costs are costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. However, instead of cutting our losses when something isn’t working out, we often keep sinking more time, effort and money into things that are not working out.

Thus, you stay in a bad relationship, ensuring you will have even more unhappy years together; you wear a jumper you don’t like because you paid money for it, even though that money isn’t coming back; you stick with a job you detest because you devoted years to climbing the career ladder; you continue reading a book to the finish, even though you dislike it.

Perseverance is important, but so is knowing when to walk away from something that isn’t working out.

As for Kahneman, writer Jason Zweig relates how he was working on a draft of a book with Kahneman.

Zweig went to bed happy with their work, only to see emails from Kahneman the next morning basically saying: forget all that work we’ve done, it’s wrong, this is what we should do instead.

Zweig thought: all that time and effort, and now we’re getting rid of it all. Shocked and pained, he asked Kahneman how could he enthusiastically start again as if they had never written an earlier draft. 

Zweig said he would never forget his response: ‘I have no sunk costs.’

We are fooled by the focusing illusion

An important bias to be aware of is what Kahneman called the focusing illusion, which he sums up in the line that ‘nothing in life is as important as you think it is, when you are thinking about it’.

For example, Kahneman notes that when asked, people overestimate how happy lottery winners are, and underestimate the happiness levels of paraplegics.

In reality, the lottery winner will not be happy forever; they will be delighted initially because of the excitement and novelty, but this will gradually fade.

Similarly, while a paraplegic might be sombre when they are thinking about their situation, most of the time they will ‘work, read, enjoy jokes and friends, and get angry when they read about politics in the newspaper’, just like most people do.

Kahneman’s point: when we think about how good or bad something might be, we often don’t consider that we will stop paying attention to the thing we are currently thinking about.

The more we dwell on something, the bigger a deal it seems. However, the things we obsess over, even the ones that feel earth-shattering in the moment, often fade from memory faster than we expect.

Linda Hamilton is a Kinsale-based cognitive behavioural therapist. If you would like to get in touch with her, call 086-3300807

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