Have you ever stuck with a frustrating investment, unsatisfying job, or failing relationship longer than you should have due to already having put so much time, money, or effort into it? This common tendency to stay the course based on past investments, even when better options exist, is called the sunk cost fallacy. Understanding this irrational bias and how to overcome it can help us make more rational decisions focused on future potential rather than recouping already-lost resources. This guide will explore what drives the sunk cost fallacy, how it leads our decision making astray across contexts, and research-backed strategies for recognizing and avoiding this trap. Armed with this knowledge, we can optimize choices based on a clear-eyed analysis of current and future costs and benefits rather than mental accounting focused on money already spent or time already passed.
What Causes the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
Several key psychological and emotional factors lead us to fall for the sunk cost fallacy:
- Loss aversion – Humans have a stronger drive to avoid losses than acquire equal gains. Sunk costs feel like a loss we want to avoid cementing with abandonment.
- Ego justification – Giving up feels like admitting failure. Self-justification pressures us to stick it out.
- Overoptimism – We overestimate the likelihood that further investment will pay off despite little evidence for it.
- Inability to accept uncertainty – Human minds crave narrative closure and resolution. Quitting leaves things unresolved.
- Escalation of commitment – Each further incremental investment reframes sunk costs as an indicator we must be on the right track.
Understanding how these mental pitfalls drive sunk cost bias allows us to notice when they surreptitiously affect our judgment. This self-awareness is key to avoiding entrapment.
Examples of Sunk Cost Fallacy
The sunk cost fallacy manifests across many life situations:
- Romantic relationships – Partners justify staying in unhappy relationships because of the years already invested together.
- Career pursuits – College students continue in a major that’s a poor fit due to the credits they already accumulated.
- Health decisions – People refuse to quit harmful addictions due to the duration of time they’ve struggled with them.
- Financial investments – Investors hold depreciating assets hoping values will recover rather than accepting losses and shifting capital elsewhere.
- Home improvements – Homeowners pour money into renovating an impractical home rather than cutting their losses.
- Personal projects – The effort already expended on side projects compels people to continue rather than moving on.
In each case, fixation on sunk investments eclipses objective analysis of current costs versus potential benefits. Our emotional drive to recoup sunk costs leads us astray.
How to Overcome Sunk Cost Bias
Though challenging, we can make more rational decisions by using strategies to avoid sunk cost bias:
- Recognize mental accounting – Notice when your mind frames decisions around attempting to recover past losses rather than evaluating purely future costs and benefits.
- View sunk costs as already lost – Reframe already-invested resources as irretrievable no matter what you decide next rather than seeing them as redeemable through further persistence.
- Consider opportunity costs – Weigh the potential opportunities and costs you forgo by persisting on the current path rather than starting fresh elsewhere.
- Imagine advising others – Mentally step outside your own ego and envision what advice you would give someone else in your situation to make a wise choice.
- Establish quitting criteria – Define specific measurable metrics or signs in advance that will objectively indicate it’s time to stop reinvesting in a faltering project or relationship.
With vigilance and some mental reframing, we can optimize our choices based on rational forward-looking analysis rather than fixation on recovering unrecoverable sunk costs.
The sunk cost fallacy is an exceedingly common but irrational bias that drives suboptimal decision making. By understanding the psychological tendencies toward loss aversion, ego justification and escalation that fuel sunk cost errors, we can spot our own faulty mental accounting.
Reframing past investments as irretrievably sunk, accurately weighing future costs and benefits, and establishing objective quitting criteria empowers us to move forward unburdened by the inertia of costs already expended. Progress often requires the courage to abort when rational analysis suggests we’re throwing good money after bad.
While walking away from substantial sunk costs may feel like failure, persistence may only dig the hole deeper. Wisdom recognizes when continuing an endeavor serves nothing but our own pride and denial. By putting reason over emotion, we can cut our losses, free up resources for new possibilities, and avoid pouring even more time, money and effort into dead ends.
There is no shame in prudently changing course based on new information. With clear eyes, we can leave behind regrets over sunk costs, take lessons learned, and look ahead to brighter horizons.
- Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985). The psychology of sunk cost. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35(1), 124-140. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-5978(85)90049-4
- Baliga, A. R., & Ely, J. C. (2011, June 15). Mnemonomics: The Sunk Cost Fallacy as a Memory Kludge. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1860479. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1860479
- Friedland, N. (1990). Attribution of control as a determinant of recovery from sunk costs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 1044–1050. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524
- Strough, J., Mehta, C. M., McFall, J. P., & Schuller, K. L. (2008). Are older adults less subject to the sunk-cost fallacy than younger adults? Psychological Science, 19(7), 650–652. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02138.x
- Steven Hassan, The Game Is Up: Disillusioned Trump Voters Tell Their Stories (2022)