Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 21;   June 1, 2022: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt

Mental Accounting and Technical Debt


In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.

Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999. A very early steel structure, the Forth Bridge was constructed from 1882 to 1890 using the methods of the day. As described by Erlend Clouston, "Around 4.8m sq ft of metal was sliced by the bridge's engineers into strips of varying slenderness, clamped together by about 7m of the tomato-sized rivets." [Clouston 2009]

To protect it against corrosion, a problem that afflicts all steel bridges, it must be covered with paint. But because the bridge is constructed of so many small parts, scraping and repainting it is a gargantuan task. Indeed, the Forth bridge had become famous for the fact that repainting it has been continuous. By the time the painters complete the job, it has been time to start again. This latest repainting, though, has been done with epoxy, which is expected to last for 25 to 40 years. So we need a new metaphor for never-ending jobs.

Technical debt might meet that daunting challenge. Controlling technical debt in large systems is a never-ending job, possibly because of Conway's Law and the ceaseless change that afflicts organizations.

Aerial view Copyright © Andrew Shiva. Inside view (cc) Lexcie.

Some organizations have made real progress in controlling and retiring their accumulated technical debt. Many others have struggled, finding the goal elusive at best. And still others have failed even to make a start on the project. It's just too much of a challenge. Although there has been some progress, the goal of retiring existing technical debt and controlling further accumulation seems to be able to resist most technical approaches.

The fundamental question could be this: Why do we have such difficulty allocating resources to the twin problems of retiring our existing technical debt, and managing new technical debt formation? Perhaps the roots of these problems lie not within the technologies we use, but within the users of the technologies — within us.

If some of the causes of our resource allocation problems have roots in human psychology, then the field of behavioral economics might have some valuable lessons that could apply. And mental accounting is one fruitful line of research that could be relevant.

As a preliminary, let's consider a specific definition of technical debt. Your definition might differ, but here's mine:

Technical debt is any technological element that contributes, through its existence or through its absence, to lower productivity or to a higher probability of defects during development, maintenance, or enhancement efforts, or which depresses velocity in some other way.

Technical debt is therefore something we would like to revise, repair, replace, rewrite, create, or re-engineer for sound engineering reasons. It can be found in — or it can be missing from — software, hardware, processes, procedures, practices, or any associated artifact, acquired by the enterprise or created within it.

With that background, let's now turn to what the research in mental accounting has to offer.

Mental accounting

Research in mental accounting has developed a number of models of behavior relative to resource allocation and acquisition. Although the work is focused almost exclusively on consumer behavior, the analogies to organizational resource management are clear enough to support conjectures in special cases such as technical debt management.

Setting aside the models of mental accounting, conventional economic theory predicts that organizational decision makers will always behave rationally. They'll make decisions that maximize the present value of resource streams, and minimize the present value of expense streams. That decision makers don't behave in this way is clear, especially in the field of technical debt management. So a natural question arises: Can we amend the principles of economics to obtain predictions that more closely resemble actual decision maker behavior?

Mental accounting offers a number of such possible amendments. In this post, I explore just two that happen to be related: pain of paying, and the credit card effect.

Pain of paying

Pain of Research in mental accounting has developed
a number of models of behavior relative to
resource allocation and acquisition
paying is the negative emotional experience that occurs when we actually pay for goods or services. Researchers have found that consumers who experience a higher level of pain of paying tend to carry lower levels of debt than do consumers who experience lower levels of pain of paying. [Rick 2008]

It's reasonable to suppose that knowledge of the financial consequences of acquiring new technical debt would cause decision-makers to experience the analog of consumer's pain of paying. Applying the concept of pain of paying to organizational technical debt, we can surmise that organizations would tend to carry lower levels of technical debt if they accurately estimate the effort required to avoid incurring new technical debt. Similarly, they might carry lower levels of technical debt if they more accurately estimate the decreases in productivity that result from carrying technical debt.

The credit card effect

Researchers in mental accounting have observed what has come to be called the credit card effect. [Prelec 2001] They have observed that consumers are more willing to pay for a good or service if they can pay for it using a credit card rather than cash. They have also found that restaurant tips are larger when the consumer pays using a credit card.

Experimental evidence suggests that the credit card effect is due to transaction decoupling — a temporal separation between the acquisition event and the payment event. This separation enables enjoyment of the good as if it were free in the context of the acquisition event. In the context of the payment event, the pain of payment can be somewhat alleviated by the passage of time, and the fact that the payment for the good might be only a small part of the balance due, which can include payment for many other acquisitions.

I suspect that this effect is part of the reason why retailers are so happy to offer gift cards. Gift cards offer even greater separation between the acquisition event and the payment event — not only temporal, but also personal.

In the organizational context, technical debt offers something analogous to consumer credit card debt. Payment for goods acquired by incurring technical debt might never happen unless the organization takes a decision to retire the debt. Moreover, the "interest" payments on technical debt occur, for the most part, in the form of depressed productivity and schedule slippage. Because neither of these effects appear anywhere in the organizational chart of accounts, decision makers don't experience a pain of payment for interest charges on technical debt.

Last words

To make progress in controlling technical debt, we might consider finding ways to cause decision makers to experience the pain of paying. And it might be helpful to make the carrying charges for technical debt more visible. Technical debt will likely remain difficult to manage as long as the penalties for incurring technical debt are invisible or nil. Go to top Top  Next issue: Flexible Queue Management  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Clouston 2009]
Erlend Clouston. "A working life: The Forth bridge painter," The Guardian, July 24, 2009. Available here. Back
[Rick 2008]
Scott I. Rick, Cynthia E. Cryder, and George Loewenstein. "Tightwads and Spendthrifts," Journal of consumer research 34:6 (2008), 767-782. Available here. Retrieved 16 May 2022. Back
[Prelec 2001]
Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester. "Always leave home without it: A further investigation of the credit-card effect on willingness to pay," Marketing letters 12:1 (2001), 5-12. Available here. Retrieved 16 May 2022. Back

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.
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Recognizing just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can reduce the incidence of problems. Here is Part 2 of a collection of antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure, emphasizing those that depend on content. Available here and by RSS on May 1.

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