Every time I pick the wrong line at the grocery store I am reminded of the sunk-cost fallacy. There are times I will be stuck in line, see another line moving more quickly, and debate internally if I should jump to the other line or just wait it out in the line I’m already in. Once I remember the sunk-cost fallacy, however, the internal debate shifts and I let go of any feeling that I need to remain in the current line.
My grocery store example is a comical take on the sunk-cost fallacy, but in real life, this cognitive error can have huge consequences. Daniel Kahneman describes it this way, “The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available, is known as the sunk-cost fallacy, a costly mistake that is observed in decisions large and small.”
We are going to make decisions and choices for where to invest our time, attention, and money that will turn out to be mistakes. At a certain point we have to realize when something is not working and walk away. Doing so, however, requires that we admit failure, that we cut our losses, and that we search for new opportunities. Admitting that we were wrong, giving up on losses, and searching for new avenues is difficult, and it is not uncommon for us to keep moving forward despite our failures, as if we just need to try harder and push more in order to find the success we desire. This is the base of the sunk-cost fallacy. When we have invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into something it is hard to walk away, even if we would be better off by doing so.
Pursuing a career path that clearly isn’t panning out and refusing to try a new different avenue is an example of sunk-cost fallacy. Movie studios that try to reinvent a character or story over and over with continued failure is another example. Sitting through the terrible movie the studio produced, rather than leaving the theater early, is also an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. In all of these instances, an investment has been made, and costly efforts to make the investment pay-off are undertaken, generally at a greater loss than would be incurred if we had made a change and walked away.
When you find yourself saying, “I have already spent so much money on XYZ, or I have already put so much effort into making XYZ work, and I don’t want to just let that all go to waste,” you are stuck in the middle of the sunk-cost fallacy. At this point, it is time to step back, look at other ways you could spend your money and time, and honestly evaluate what your priorities should be. Doing so, and remembering Kahneman’s quote, will help you begin to make the shift to a better use of your time, energy, and resources. It may be embarrassing and disappointing to admit that something is going in the wrong direction, but ultimately, you will end up in a better and more productive spot.