How to Quit Twitter, Avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy and other Advice for Obsessions : Planet Money Irrational decisions. Things we can't let go. Friend of the show Sam Sanders comes by to talk obsessions. We turn to economics for advice, clarity and comfort. | Subscribe to Sam's podcast, It's Been A Minute.
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Can't Let It Go

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Can't Let It Go

Can't Let It Go

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

Sam Sanders, welcome to PLANET MONEY. You are, of course, the host of the fabulous podcast It's Been A Minute, which is one of my personal favorite shows.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Well, Karen, that is very kind of you to say. As promised, your check is in the mail.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) All right. Sam, what are we doing today?

SANDERS: So this episode, we're going to do a thing that I actually began doing way back when I used to host the NPR Politics Podcast. It's this segment called Can't Let It Go, where I would invite people to share the thing that they just couldn't stop thinking about - a song, a meal, a new car, a meme, whatever.

DUFFIN: And today we are going to bring that segment to PLANET MONEY. The entire show will be just our obsessions. It will include the Beyonce of economics. We will also seek professional help to get free of a particularly persistent obsession of ours - also, butter.

SANDERS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sam Sanders.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Today on the show, the things that we can't let go.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BROOKLYN'S "GET IT AND GIVE IT")

DUFFIN: Hello, Greg Rosalsky, who writes the excellent PLANET MONEY newsletter. How are you?

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: I'm feeling good. I'm ready to talk about somebody special in my world.

SANDERS: Somebody special, an obsession of yours.

ROSALSKY: Yeah, I'm obsessed with a particular economist. His name is Raj Chetty. He's an economist at Harvard University. And, you know, like, some people have LeBron James. Other people have Taylor Swift.

SANDERS: I've got Beyonce.

ROSALSKY: I have Raj.

SANDERS: You have Raj. Raj is your personal Beyonce. OK.

ROSALSKY: He's my personal Beyonce. Like, Raj Chetty coming out with a new paper for me is - it's like - I don't know - like Radiohead or like Kendrick Lamar coming out with...

SANDERS: Dropping an album.

ROSALSKY: Yeah, it's like dropping an album.

SANDERS: (Laughter) I love it.

ROSALSKY: You're going to sit with it for hours.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. So, Greg, tell us what makes Raj Chetty the Beyonce of economics.

ROSALSKY: So if you don't know who Raj is, he's super concerned about these problems that our society is facing - you know, poverty, inequality, declining social mobility. And he's all about finding sort of the best evidence on how to defeat those things.

So I could go through his greatest hits here. Well, here's one - "How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence From Project Star." So this one was pretty awesome. Short version - having a good kindergarten teacher significantly increases a student's earning potential when they get older - like, decades later - thousands and thousands of dollars in increased earnings for each student in each student's lifetime. So, like, think about what that means. Like, how important is it that we invest in kindergarten and getting the best kindergarten teachers?

SANDERS: OK, so that's one.

ROSALSKY: OK, so how about this one? This one is like - good Lord. It's like his "Free Bird." It's like his "Strawberry Fields Forever."

(LAUGHTER)

ROSALSKY: But it's actually just - but it's actually super depressing, like an Elliott Smith song or something.

SANDERS: OK.

ROSALSKY: Anyway, so it's called "The Fading American Dream." Chetty and his co-authors look at the likelihood that 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at age 30. So back in 1970, this was true of 90% of Americans. Today, Chetty and his colleagues find it's fallen to, like, only around 50%.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

ROSALSKY: In other words, like, half of all Americans are worse off than their parents were. Like, think about the, like, the social and political consequences of that. Like, half of Americans are seeing their families' economic lives deteriorate. And it's like a real wake-up call.

SANDERS: That's why we're out here screwing with GameStonk (ph).

ROSALSKY: I know.

SANDERS: We ain't got no money.

ROSALSKY: That's (laughter) - did you invest in that, Sam? Were you an early investor?

SANDERS: I was too late. It's too late now.

ROSALSKY: So Chetty and his colleagues, they blame rising inequality for this dramatic decline. It's not that there's really been a huge slowdown in economic growth. It's just the spoils of economic growth are going to a much smaller percentage of the population than it used to. Oh, God. So I could just keep going.

SANDERS: I love the purity and the love that I can hear in your voice. My last question for you - it's like, if you could meet Raj Chetty, like y'all are at the same bar, you say hi and you, like, buy him a beer and y'all could just chat, what would be the first thing you'd say to him?

ROSALSKY: Is Raj about to come on the Zoom call right now? Did you guys - is he going to surprise me?

SANDERS: Raj, come on the line.

RAJ CHETTY: Hey, Greg.

ROSALSKY: Oh, my God. Raj is here.

DUFFIN: (Laughter).

ROSALSKY: No way. Get out of here.

DUFFIN: Oh, my God. I love this.

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) I'm so embarrassed. Also, I'm so happy I'm in a closet and Raj can't see my face right now because it's so dark in my closet.

CHETTY: Greg, wow. I'm delighted that I guess I'm your Beyonce of economics. I've never been called Beyonce before, so I will take that as a big compliment (laughter). No, but I think what we really appreciate is folks who take the time to actually read the papers, so it's good to hear that we have at least one person who reads those.

(LAUGHTER)

CHETTY: But also, you know, getting the word out to the public - the reason we do this work is to try to have that impact. So having people like you all who are paying attention is hugely motivating to all of us.

DUFFIN: And how do you feel about being called the Beyonce of economics?

CHETTY: Well, my team often makes fun of me 'cause I'm not as up to speed on, like, pop culture as maybe I should be. And so...

ROSALSKY: You have heard of Beyonce, though, right? Come on.

CHETTY: I have heard of Beyonce. I have heard of Beyonce.

(LAUGHTER)

CHETTY: Yeah. But, you know, jokes aside, I appreciate the comparisons. Our hope is that we can, you know, really show that there's a science to a lot of this and to bring that out in a way that people can actually understand and relate to. That's kind of my mission, and a huge compliment to be compared, I guess, too. I'll think of the Beyonce compliment (laughter).

ROSALSKY: Well, I just want to say thanks, Raj. Thanks for taking the time. I'm looking forward to all your future work.

CHETTY: Absolutely. And likewise, I look forward to being in touch.

DUFFIN: All right. Thanks, Raj.

CHETTY: Thanks, everyone. Bye.

SANDERS: Thank y'all. This was so pure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BROOKLYN'S "BLUE WAVE")

DUFFIN: Welcome, Robert Smith, fellow co-host of PLANET MONEY. Word on the street is that there is a recipe that you have been making - is this true? - every single day since the pandemic started.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Pretty much every day for lunch, I eat exactly the same thing. It's just the one thing I can make by memory.

SANDERS: What is it?

SMITH: I call it curried chicken, but I think it's called Country Captain Chicken. It's from the "Joy Of Cooking," which means it was invented in the 1950s, probably. The only cookbook I had when I was younger, when I was on my own for the first time, was this cookbook.

SANDERS: I'm looking through the ingredients. This is the most - gosh, let me be nice here.

SMITH: No, don't be nice.

SANDERS: This is a very dumbed-down recipe of curry.

SMITH: Sam, a little bit about my background.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I was born in Canada.

SANDERS: Oh, that explains so much.

SMITH: I was born in Canada. And I was raised in Utah.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

DUFFIN: OK, that's fair. But it still does not answer the question, how did this become the recipe that you decided to make every single day of the pandemic?

SMITH: Something has happened during this pandemic, and I don't know if it's happened to other people, but I have fallen into - I was going to say into a rhythm, but really, it's almost just like a factory automation in my life. I wake up at 7 without an alarm. I eat breakfast at 8. I eat lunch at noon. I eat dinner at 6. And then I just started to, like, automate my grocery ordering. And now I just get these chicken thighs delivered every Sunday. And it's - there's something that is comforting or just a default.

SANDERS: Yeah.

DUFFIN: I see you have a dish of today's curry there, and you - you're taking a bite.

SANDERS: Do you ever get tired of it?

SMITH: No way.

SANDERS: Wow. I don't know. I think a lot of us in the midst of this pandemic life full of what seems like uncertainty - the things that we really can control and do methodically we really grasp onto.

SMITH: I think that is exactly right because I know - like, who knows what's going to happen tomorrow in the stock market, with the pandemic, in politics?

SANDERS: Yeah.

SMITH: But I know what's going to happen tomorrow at noon.

SANDERS: (Laughter) That curry. That curry.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES DRISCOLL AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "NEVER OUT OF FASHION")

SANDERS: Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, PLANET MONEY producer, hello, sir.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Hello, Sam. Hello, Karen. So the thing I'm obsessed with is this musician named Lubalin, who's become pretty famous over the last few months for these incredible videos. What he does is he goes and scours around the Internet for, like, these tiny, banal conversations from, like, a Facebook group or a subreddit or something, you know, somebody accusing somebody else of having stolen a recipe or somebody trying to find an apartment and changing their mind at the last minute. And he turns these boring, petty, little Internet fights into, like, Broadway-scale production-value drama. He's got, like, glam rock music and wind machines blowing through his long locks.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

DUFFIN: I like it. He's, like, giving the everyday drama of our lives the respect it deserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNET DRAMA PART 3: (I JUST NEED BUTTER)")

LUBALIN: (Singing) I'm out of butter. Please drop a stick at the corner of Main and 5th.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And there is this one song in particular I cannot let go of. It's like everybody in my house is singing it all the time, especially in the kitchen. And I think he found this on, like, a neighborhood Facebook group or on Nextdoor or something. It's about somebody who just really wants to borrow some butter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNET DRAMA PART 3: (I JUST NEED BUTTER)")

LUBALIN: (Singing) I just need butter.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He feels, like, deeper about needing butter than I maybe have felt about anything in life before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNET DRAMA PART 3: (I JUST NEED BUTTER)")

LUBALIN: (Singing) I just need butter. Butter is important to me.

DUFFIN: Hello, Amanda Aronczyk, Mary Childs, fellow co-hosts of PLANET MONEY.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: Hello, Karen. Hey there, Sam.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: Hi, Karen and Sam.

DUFFIN: All right, Sam, I have invited them here to confess their obsession, which, frankly, I think is an obsession that you and I also share. So I'm going to go first. I'm going to model some healthy behavior here and say I think I have a Twitter problem.

SANDERS: Yeah, I tweet way too much. There have been several times where I'll be on Twitter on my phone while walking the dog, and I've walked into trees.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: And my dog has been like - my dog just looks at me like, dude, come on. Get it together. I'm sure at some point Twitter is going to lead to, like, my house burning down.

CHILDS: And it will have been worth it.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Yeah, those retweets will keep me warm and put a roof over my head.

DUFFIN: OK, you guys, clearly, some of us have a little bit of a problem here, which is why I have brought in an actual economist to help us out. Her name is Katy Milkman. She is a behavioral economist, which means that she deals with irrational behavior. And I may have sent her our Twitter usage stats.

ARONCZYK: Uh-oh.

SANDERS: Katy, do you think we're trash?

KATY MILKMAN: No (laughter).

ARONCZYK: She knows we're trash.

MILKMAN: Yeah, but we have some work to do. So I looked up average Twitter usage before this conversation.

DUFFIN: Oh, no.

SANDERS: Uh-oh, uh-oh.

CHILDS: That's unfortunate.

MILKMAN: Let me just say I don't know the distribution, but I'm confident you're all at least two standard deviations above the mean.

SANDERS: I'll take that as a compliment. We are exceptional high achievers.

(LAUGHTER)

DUFFIN: Katy, can you help us? Is there something in behavioral economics that can help us stop and that doesn't 100% require self-control because I've shown an inability to use that muscle?

MILKMAN: Yes, thank goodness, there are some things that can help. And they're called commitment devices, when you start adding teeth to your restrictions.

So let me tell you about an example. Like, there's a website called stickK. You can go to stickK and put money on the line that you'll forfeit if you don't stick to some goal, like staying off Twitter at certain hours. And you can even choose to give that money to a charity you hate. So if you're really pro-gun control, you could donate to the NRA, for instance, or vice versa.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. That is high-stakes.

ARONCZYK: The team at PLANET MONEY - we have to give money to "Freakonomics."

CHILDS: Not "Freakonomics."

(LAUGHTER)

DUFFIN: Just kidding. Just kidding. We love "Freakonomics."

MILKMAN: Yes, yes. Yeah. So anyway, another thing I actually want to suggest to you is that you give each other some advice. One of the things that research has shown about improving ourselves is actually when we give other people advice on a shared goal, it helps us. So thinking through what works for you ends up producing insights that you might not have come up with.

CHILDS: One thing that has helped me - not be on Twitter less, but it's helped me tweet less - is I run all of my tweets by a friend.

SANDERS: Wow.

CHILDS: We have a tweet, don't-tweet format, where we just send each other the tweet and then the other person says, don't tweet that.

SANDERS: I think a thing that I realized, especially in the midst of the pandemic, is to just schedule healthy activities. So I've gotten really into the, like, outdoor walk with a friend. And a thing about going outside and doing things outside is that you can leave your phone in the house while you're outside of the house (laughter).

ARONCZYK: Oh, God, no.

DUFFIN: I think that's illegal.

CHILDS: How do you know what steps - how many steps you took? You won't know.

(LAUGHTER)

DUFFIN: Oh, Katy, we're hopeless. I'm sorry. But thank you, Katy Milkman, behavioral economist from the Wharton School, for at least trying to help us out here.

MILKMAN: You're welcome. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY, DANETTE M. DUFILHO AND SKINNY WILLIAMS SONG, "DON'T LOOK DOWN")

DUFFIN: All right, Sam, the final thing we want to do here today is give our listeners a little bit of help.

SANDERS: Yes.

DUFFIN: Because I am certain that we have some listeners who are also obsessed with things that they need help letting go of. And the good news is we come bearing hope in the form of an economic idea. It's a seemingly small shift in outlook, but it's a thing that can help people let go when they're holding on to something that just does not make sense.

SANDERS: Yes, this is called the sunk cost fallacy. It can help with a particular kind of can't let it go. For me, my personal sunk cost fallacy, can't let it go is "Grey's Anatomy." I've whizzed through so many seasons so quickly and loved the experience. But now I'm in Season 12 of, like, 16 seasons, and I'm stuck. The characters have turned over. I don't feel connected to them. And I've just been like, do I still want to watch this show? But I feel very pressured to keep watching the show because of all the time I've already spent watching the show.

DUFFIN: OK, Sam, this is a classic case of the sunk cost fallacy, which is what happens when you've sunk all of this time or money into something, and you're like, I can't possibly stop now because I've already sunk all that time or money into it. But what the sunk cost fallacy would tell you is there's really only one question that matters. And that question is, would my life be better if I just stopped watching "Grey's Anatomy" right now? And if the answer is yes, then you should just stop. You should just stop watching, Sam.

SANDERS: That is the rational way to think about this.

DUFFIN: I know. I know. It's hard to be rational about things like this. It's like what happens to a parent who, like, buys day passes to Disneyland and, you know, they take the kids, but by, like, noon, everyone's just cranky and, actually, the most fun you could have is just going back to the hotel and watching TV. But you're like, I'm sorry; I paid for day passes. We are not leaving until they shut the gates behind us. But that's just a sunk cost. Like, you should just go home.

SANDERS: OK.

DUFFIN: And I think that probably everybody has something like this in their lives, like a book or a TV show or Disneyland, whatever it is, which is why we put together something that we hope will help people deal with this particular type of obsession. We have today for our listeners the world premiere of PLANET MONEY's very first meditation. It is a meditation on the sunk cost fallacy itself from our very own Jacob Goldstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Breathing in sunk costs, breathing out fallacy. The money is spent. Let it go. Breathing in, we reflect on our mortality. Breathing out, we realize that every moment we spend reading a boring novel or watching a subpar dramedy is a moment we'll never get back. The time is gone. We let it go. Let it go. Let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SANDERS: Hey, listeners, we want to hear what you can't let go, and you got so many options to share that with us. You can email the show at planetmoney@npr.org or you can find the show on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, also on TikTok because we're there for Gen Z as well.

DUFFIN: Yes, we are. And lastly, just one final note for me. This is actually my very last show as a host of PLANET MONEY. I am going to miss this delightful crew of funny, ridiculous nerds very much. They are so much fun to work with, which is why you should apply for my job. We are hiring a new host right now. Just go to npr.org, and you can submit your application.

SANDERS: All right. Our show today was produced by Emma Peaslee and Dave Blanchard.

DUFFIN: Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. If you have not heard Sam's show, you have to listen to it. It comes out twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. It's called It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: Yes. Do what Karen says. Listen to the show. All right, I'm Sam Sanders.

DUFFIN: I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I just had a flashback to, like, "The Real World" when you said confessional. Like, where are the cameras?

(LAUGHTER)

DUFFIN: We can do that.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

DUFFIN: Can you believe what Amanda said?

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: I'm right here, guys.

SANDERS: And then Mary - oh, my goodness. She just thinks she owns the place.

CHILDS: I'm not here to make friends.

(LAUGHTER)

CHILDS: Is that right?

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