academia, economics, Psychology, writing

writing || time is not money: on storytelling and sunk costs

They say time is money, but that’s not exactly true.

Since being exposed to the research field through my professors at university and Richard Thaler’s “Misbehaving”, I’ve found it fascinating to read studies that explore the bridge between psychology, decision-making and economics. At the moment, I’m looking into sunk costs and “mental accounting” – a term Thaler introduced to describe our (sometimes irrational) process of keeping track of spending and returns in our everyday lives, regardless of whether the spending is a sunk cost or not.

For example, if I go to a big concert today, and tomorrow another two choices of concerts come up – one for the same week, and one for a month from now – I am more likely to buy the one a month from now for no other reason than a desire to distribute my spending.

Additionally, say you buy an expensive pair of shoes. If the shoes hurt to wear, you’re still likely to keep them around and maybe even try wearing them several times to “get your money’s worth” out of them.

I was curious how this concept might apply to time. Are we just as careful with our spending of hours?

Say, for example, you spend 10 hours participating in a study for which the compensation is tickets to a ballet, and that same day you win an unrelated draw for tickets to a pop concert. They’re both happening on the same day, and you think you would enjoy the pop concert more. Which event would most people choose to attend?

To really explore the contrast between time and money, try this. Say instead you buy the tickets to the ballet yourself for $450 and the pop concert tickets for $80. Then, you realize they’re for the same day this week and you can only pick one of them to attend. You can’t sell the other. Which one do you go to now?

These scenarios are loosely borrowed from this study by Dilip Soman in the Journal of Behavioral Decision-Making. It performs several experiments, one of which is very similar to the situation I described above. And the findings showed that, in the first example, 95% of people chose the pop concert. In the second, only 62% did.


In the first example, 95% of people chose the pop concert. In the second, only 62% did.

Perhaps the reason why giving hours away with no return is easier than giving money away has to do with what we get out of it. Money buys things, sometimes experiences. It’s a transaction. Spending your time gets you a connection, relationship, and something else. Something more visceral and innately desirable: a story.

Think about what your answer would be for these questions:

Why do we read books?
Why do we watch movies?
Why do we make friends with strangers?
Why do we try new experiences?
Why do we say yes to things we’re not sure we can do?

Different people from different cultures might generate a variety of answers. But I would argue they likely all have one common thread – our human need for stories. It’s ingrained in our being. Maybe it’s what makes us human. After all, there’s nothing we all want more than a good story – to hear about and to live.

a segue on the art of telling stories

By consequence, if someone can TELL a good story, they’re instantly magnetic. While there might be some qualities that tend to produce good storytellers, I’m sure it’s something that can be learned.

I don’t particularly consider myself to be one. But I do notice that when I think that I have something worth saying, whatever story I am telling is a hundred times more interesting. When my audience is engaged and interested, I feel like I can take more risks with my storytelling. If I woke up that morning feeling like an organized, badass, valued person, I also tell my story with more confidence and excitement. And when I’ve been reading a lot of books, everything around me seems to connect in one big, can’t-wait-to-get-people-in-on-this story.

A good storyteller embodies five key things every time they speak.

  1. They’re passionate about their story.
  2. They act out their story.
  3. They focus on the story, not themselves or their audience’s reactions.
  4. They don’t half-ass their story.
  5. They see the world in stories.

But most of all, a good storyteller knows how to appreciate whatever they are currently doing with their time, because everything around them becomes a story.

And that’s about it for today. Till next time!

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