Last week, my family and I were sitting at the dinner table, talking about our days.
After a bit of conversation, my youngest son, Dainen, said he wanted to have some Gatorade. He hadn’t, however, finished his dinner (which consisted of some tasty meatballs my wife had made). I told him he needed to finish his meatballs first, and then he could have some Gatorade.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t having any of my offer and decided to throw a fit instead.
“Noooooooo! I want some Gatorade now.”
To which I responded, “If you eat your meatballs, then you can have some Gatorade.”
“I don’t want my meatballs. I want some Gatorade!”
This went back and forth for awhile, until my oldest son, Rylan, chimed in: “Well, Dainen, it’s just an economic choice.”
My wife and I looked at each other, a little dumbfounded that our 7-year-old son knew something about economic principles (which, if I remember correctly, I first learned about in college). After a few seconds, my wife asked, “Rylan, you know about economic choices?”
“Yeah, we talked about them in school today. We learned about opportunity costs and response costs.”
For the next 10 minutes or so, we talked about opportunity and response costs and how they’re present in the boys’ lives.
Since that time, I’ve also thought a lot about how these costs play an important role when it comes to pursuing the good life.
In this blog post, I’d like to spend some time exploring this idea.
What are Opportunity and Response Costs?
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, let me take a quick minute to explain them.
1. First is opportunity cost, which is a concept that comes out of economics.
An opportunity cost refers to a loss we experience when we pick one choice over another (and, importantly, we can’t have both). Usually, the “cost” is defined as what we would’ve gotten had we chosen the next-best alternative.
For instance, imagine I have the choice between (a) going with my friends to a movie I really want to see, (b) getting a couple hours of much-needed sleep, and (c) studying a few more hours for an upcoming exam.
Now imagine I can rate each of these choices on a 10-point “importance” scale.
Maybe I’d rate them something like this:
Going to the movie will provide me with entertainment and maybe a bit of relaxation, which, altogether, add up to 6/10 on my personal importance scale.
Getting some sleep will make me feel refreshed and maybe a little less stressed out. But, in fact, I feel like I can push through it. As such, it only gets 4/10.
And studying for my exam will likely get me a better grade (which may have numerous benefits later on) and thus rates 8/10.
After some thought (or maybe none at all), I decide to stay home and study, because this activity has the most total importance.
Now, by staying home, I’m doing the thing that is most important to me, the thing that provides me with the most value.
But at the same time, I’m also paying a cost because I’m missing out on the movie, which I rated as the next-best activity (and I’m also missing out on sleep).
In short, one opportunity costs us the chance for another opportunity.
2. The second concept is response cost, which refers to the idea that we often have to do one thing before we can do another. (There is another definition of response cost that is popular in the field of behavior analysis, but I’m going to deviate from that definition here.)
Whereas opportunity cost occurs when making a choice keeps us from having another, response cost occurs when we have to do one thing before the next.
Most often, the thing we have to do first is less enjoyable than the second. And quite often, it requires some effort.
For instance, maybe I have to clean my room before I can go to a movie. Or maybe I have to finish this blog post before I can practice guitar. Or maybe I have to exercise before I can eat some junk food on my Free Day.
In each case, getting what we want “costs” something—it costs responses that sap our energy, decrease our enjoyment, and so on.
Hence the term “response cost.”
Opportunity and Response Costs: They’re Everywhere
The fact of the matter is that opportunity and response costs are all around us. And more often than not, we have to pay them to get where we want to go in life.
Maybe it means working really hard in college so you can pursue your dream career.
Maybe it means staying up late and practicing guitar so you sound good during rehearsal the next day.
Maybe it means forgoing the chocolate cake so you can lose some weight.
Maybe it’s an economic cost, like when you have to save money for awhile or take out a loan to start your dream business (as the old saying goes, “You often have to spend money to make money”).
Maybe it means saying goodbye to people who are holding you back and seeking out a new group of friends who provide you with more social support.
Maybe it means tackling your fears head-on and pushing through them to a life you really want to live.
Or maybe it simply means eating your meatballs before you can have some Gatorade.
What are You Willing to Pay?
Yes, opportunity and response costs are often painful—sometimes psychologically, sometimes physically, and sometimes both. And when things are painful, we tend to avoid them…
…because we’d rather stay comfortable.
Unfortunately, the hard truth is that having a life we truly want—one that rates high on our importance scale—is usually going to cost something.
Which begs the question: What are you willing to pay to get there?
If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.
Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!Share