Mental Model: The Shoichi Yokoi Fallacy

Shoichi Yokoi was a Japanese tailor born in 1915.  When he was 25 years old, his country sent him to war with the idea that he and his fellow soldiers were to fight to the death and avoid the shame of surrender.  In 1944, the United States military seized Guam, where Yokoi was stationed.  Rather than give up and face disgrace, Yokoi and more than 1,000 of his fellow soldiers hid the jungles.  All of his compatriots died of starvation or disease, or were captured.  Although he knew that the United States had won the war and Japan had surrendered, he refused to do the same, vowing to honor the emperor for whom he fought.

Shouichi Yokoi

Shouichi Yokoi was a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender, spending 27 years in hiding.

This went on for 27 years until, finally, Shoichi Yokoi was captured in 1972 by two American hunters.  He returned to Japan a symbol of greatness to the older generation, an embarrassment to the younger.  As the excellent obituary on him in The New York Times pointed out back in 1997, “Hailed as a hero at a welcoming ceremony in Tokyo’s airport, as millions of Japanese watched on television, he seemed overwhelmed by the changes in the country to which he had returned. He had never heard of television, atomic weapons or jet planes.”

This man wasted 27 years of his life for a set of ideals that mattered not one iota to anyone else.  He gave up family, friends, career, success, comfort, and enjoyment all for the sake of “sticking with it” in the spirit of what the Japanese call ganbaru, which is the willingness to “slog on tenaciously through time times” or situations.  There is a point at which virtue, when taken to an extreme, can become vice.  Shoichi Yokoi was the embodiment of this fallacy.

You have to give yourself the permission to change your mind.  You have to be able to re-evaluate the situation and accept that you no longer want, or are willing to go after, the things you once held dear.  Did you spend years going to medical school but now, at 50, realize that all you really want to do with your life is paint?  Then do it.  Go paint.  You will die someday and you won’t get this time back.  Stop wasting your life and do what you want.

That is the big lesson.  A smaller, but still important moral, involves your pocketbook.  The Shoichi Yokoi fallacy, as I call it, is heavily influenced by the economic mental model known as the sunk cost fallacy.  Many times, humans are wired to consider past investments of time, money, or energy, which cannot be recovered, in determining whether to stay with a project or course of action when the only rational behavior is to consider future probabilities of success.

In its worst manifestation, the sunk cost fallacy can lead to irrational escalation where you are losing money on an investment that went poorly due to permanent capital impairment in the intrinsic value calculation and, instead of cutting your losses, you pour more and more capital after it.

Don’t be like Shoichi Yokoi.  When the facts and conditions change, consider changing your mind.  There is a difference between principled and being foolish.

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  • Abe

    “This man wasted 27 years of his life for a set of ideals that mattered not one iota to anyone else. He gave up family, friends, career, success, comfort, and enjoyment all for the sake of “sticking with it” in the spirit of what the Japanese call ganbaru, which is the willingness to “slog on tenaciously through time times” or situations. There is a point at which virtue, when taken to an extreme, can become vice. Shoichi Yokoi was the embodiment of this fallacy.”

    Intellectually, you have to realize that you’ve projected your own values onto this individual. It’s apparent when you characterize his 27 year endeavour as “wasted”. But, who are we to judge? You constantly advocate to do what you desire to do (maximize your own happiness) while being mindful to not tread on other people’s rights. Can you or I really say that what he did not bring him happiness? Who can positively say that if he had returned to Japan that he would’ve been any happier? We can make assumptions of course, but the truth is only Shoichi Yokoi was privy to his own internal motivations. He could’ve very well returned to Japan and forever felt regret for his actions.

    Mind you, I understand the point of this mental model, but I also recognize that for a few select individuals their morals are valued beyond the utility they provide.

    P.S. My opinion is that morality for the sake of morality itself is foolish.

    • Intellectually, you have to realize that you’ve projected your own values onto this individual.

      Of course I do. It’s an opinion piece. That is literally the entire reason it exists; to pass judgment on what I see as a case of severe sub-optimality. It adds an asterisk to my other writings, which you correctly sum up as me advocating, “to do what you desire to do (maximize your own happiness) while being mindful to not tread on other people’s rights.” None of that changes, it’s just further developed and qualified.

      That qualifier is there is such a thing as being blinded by your own stupidity, prejudices, irrationality, and bias. When you study this man’s life, it becomes clear he wasn’t maximizing his own happiness in the sense most people think of that term, but, rather, he had slipped into the dark side of a few mental models (denial, escalating bets, sunk cost fallacy) to avoid the emotional pain of admitting defeat.

      While he may have had a right to do what he did – and that is questionable given he vowed to serve the empire, yet openly defied his oath for the sake of his pride, refusing to obey the command given by Emperor Shōwa to accept immediate surrender to avoid the loss of further Japanese life – it doesn’t make him any less of a damned fool.

      He spent his entire gift – and that is what life is – running, hiding, and doing everything in his power to avoid facing emotional heartbreak. It’s cowardice. That’s not something a reasonable person should want to emulate.

      • Abe

        I just realized today that you don’t get automatic updates when someone replies to previously posted comments. I would’ve replied sooner had I known.

        With regards to Shoichi Yokoi, I must admit to not having studied this man further than what information I gleamed from your post. And, I’m guessing from your reply that if I had, I would’ve been less inclined to post what I did. As stated previously, “…My [personal] opinion is that morality for the sake of morality itself is foolish.” I’ve had many discussions on this very same topic with friends/family that have various religious/spiritual beliefs on polar ends of the spectrum. But, as you already pointed out, it would appear that his actions were neither moral nor did they serve to maximize his own happiness – failure on both accounts.