The Woodcarver and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

If you studied economics, process engineering or are an enthusiast of popular psychology, you might have heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s alive and well in woodcarving too. Sunk costs are costs you have paid and can’t get back. 

That’s fine if everything works out. But if the project just hasn’t been the success you wished for, the temptation is to keep trying to fix it. Sometimes it can’t be fixed. And that’s the sunk cost fallacy: The belief that just one more project revision will allow the Goony Bird Mk 29 to fly.

I knew the fallacy well. I called it “just one more cut.” The piece will work with one more cut to clean up that angle. Five cuts later, the chip carving is worse off than when I started. I was most familiar with it from chip carving because some of the balance and symmetry of a piece come from all cuts sharing similar geometry; if one facet is out of balance, the carving looks odd.

I saw it a lot more when I started teaching. I start my courses with chip carving to teach tool control and the importance of sharp tools. An occasional student could not stop cutting and adjusting. Rarely did any of this result in a saved piece of work. I described it to my students at WoodenBoat School as “just one more cut.”

Later, over dinner, an engineer in my class told me about the sunk cost fallacy. As I write this, I can think of an eagle I’ve carved that I’d love to take one more cut on. See, it’s pervasive.

Here’s some advice I’ve offered that applies well here:

  •  First, turn the carving bottom for the top; how bad is the perceived defect? 
  • Second, using a hand mirror, view the work from various perspectives; once again, how bad is the defect? 
  • Third, put down the tools and work on something else for the rest of the day. Come back later. 
  • Fourth, study the effect of the corrective cut before you do it. What are the chances of that cut fixing the problem? 
  • Fifth, when realizing you’ve wasted hours mulling over ten minutes of carving, throw the junk into the kindling bucket and do it right. It’s harder to do the further along the piece is; I’m not telling you that I have no struggles with this.

So, Robert Elliot, a colleague of mine who produces gorgeous Windsor chairs, once scolded me that we can’t just throw everything that had a mistake away. We have to learn how to fix errors. That’s the value of the first steps, knowing what we did wrong, thinking about how it can be fixed, and evaluating if it’s worth fixing. Hopefully, we will learn enough to avoid repeat errors and the frustration of endlessly falling into the sunk cost fallacy. 

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