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How the Sunk Cost Fallacy Makes You Act Stupid

How the Sunk Cost Fallacy Makes You Act Stupid

Do you think you make smart, rational decisions most of the time?

Chances are good that even if you pride yourself on being rational most of the time, you still occasionally fall for the sunk cost fallacy.

What is this fallacy?

In economics, a sunk cost is any past cost that has already been paid and cannot be recovered. For example, a business may have invested a million dollars into new hardware. This money is now gone and cannot be recovered, so it shouldn’t figure into the business’s decision making process.

Or, let’s say you buy tickets to a concert. On the day of the event, you catch a cold. Even though you are sick, you decide to go to the concert because otherwise “you would have wasted your money”.

Boom! You just fell for the sunk cost fallacy.

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Sure, you spent the money already. But you can’t get it back. If you aren’t going to have a good time at the concert, you only make your life worse by going.

How Often Do You Fall Into The Sunk Cost Fallacy Trap?

Unfortunately, an awful lot.

If you take a moment, you can probably think of all sorts of situations where you make irrational decisions because of the sunk cost fallacy.

To help you see how common this is, here are a few examples.

1. “I might as well keep eating because I already bought the food.”

I do this one all the time. If I go to a restaurant and become full after eating most but not all of my food, I feel compelled to eat the rest so that it isn’t “wasted”.

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But in reality, nobody else will eat that food after me. It’s not getting recycled or given to poor people. It’s just thrown out.

So if I feel uncomfortable, I shouldn’t eat the food. It’s a sunk cost, and I only lose by gorging myself further.

2. “I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.”

Or reading a terrible book that you are 100 pages into, or continuing a T.V. series on Netflix that has gone downhill, etc.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve already invested time into whatever media you are consuming. If you don’t like the movie, you can walk out of it.

I once made the mistake of staying in the theater during Dinner For Schmucks despite quickly realizing how terrible it was. It never got better, and I wasted even more of my time by staying.

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3. “I might as well keep going to a bad/useless class that I paid for.”

If you join a club or take a class to learn a new skill, you might feel compelled to continue even if you don’t enjoy it.

After all, you paid the $100 entry fee and you’ve gone to 3 of the 8 sessions, so you might as well finish, right?

Of course not. If you don’t feel you are getting anything out of it, bail. Write off the money and the time you spent, and save yourself from the other five classes. Don’t waste any more of your time.

4. “I might as well continue dating someone bad for me because I’ve already invested so much in them.”

This is unfortunately all too common.

If you put a lot of emotional investment into a relationship, it can be very challenging to break it off. This can be true of any relationship, not just romantic ones. Perhaps one of your good friends is no longer a positive influence on you. Years of emotional investment makes it very uncomfortable to cut your ties, but you might have to.

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Well, How Do I Free Myself?

We fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy because we are emotionally invested in whatever money, time, or any other resource we have committed in the past. The most important step to freeing yourself from making poor decisions based on sunk costs is to recognize the logical fallacy. Simply being aware of it will help you tremendously in making more rational decisions in the future.

By reading this article, you’ve already taken that huge first step.

But when that isn’t enough, I suggest you write out a pros and cons list. If the only pro of continuing to do something is to feel better about the emotional investment you’ve made, clearly you should go in the other direction.

Despite how common this fallacy is, you can see through it fairly easily most of the time. Don’t let it make you act stupidly.

More by this author

Michael Davidson

Michael teaches English in Israel while blogging about how to live a happier and healthier life.

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Last Updated on December 10, 2019

5 Smart Reasons to Start Journal Writing Today

5 Smart Reasons to Start Journal Writing Today

Here’s the truth: your effectiveness at life is not what it could be. You’re missing out.

Each day passes by and you have nothing to prove that it even happened. Did you achieve something? Go on a date? Have an emotional breakthrough? Who knows?

But what you do know is that you don’t want to make the same mistakes that you’ve made in the past.

Our lives are full of hidden gems of knowledge and insight, and the most recent events in our lives contain the most useful gems of all. Do you know why? It’s simple, those hidden lessons are the most up to date, meaning they have the largest impact on what we’re doing right now.

But the question is, how do you get those lessons? There’s a simple way to do it, and it doesn’t involve time machines:

Journal writing.

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Improved mental clarity, the ability to see our lives in the big picture, as well as serving as a piece of evidence cataloguing every success we’ve ever had; we are provided all of the above and more by doing some journal writing.

Journal writing is a useful and flexible tool to help shed light on achieving your goals.

Here’s 5 smart reasons why you should do journal writing:

1. Journals Help You Have a Better Connection with Your Values, Emotions, and Goals

By journaling about what you believe in, why you believe it, how you feel, and what your goals are, you understand your relationships with these things better. This is because you must sort through the mental clutter and provide details on why you do what you do and feel what you feel.

Consider this:

Perhaps you’ve spent the last year or so working at a job you don’t like. It would be easy to just suck it up and keep working with your head down, going on as if it’s supposed to be normal to not like your job. Nobody else is complaining, so why should you, right?

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But a little journal writing will set things straight for you. You don’t like your job. You feel like it’s robbing you of happiness and satisfaction, and you don’t see yourself better there in the future.

The other workers? Maybe they don’t know, maybe they don’t care. But you do, you know and care enough to do something about it. And you’re capable of fixing this problem because your journal writing allows you to finally be honest with yourself about it.

2. Journals Improve Mental Clarity and Help Improve Your Focus

If there’s one thing journal writing is good for, it’s clearing the mental clutter.

How does it work? Simply, whenever you have a problem and write about it in a journal, you transfer the problem from your head to the paper. This empties the mind, allowing allocation of precious resources to problem-solving rather than problem-storing.

Let’s say you’ve been juggling several tasks at work. You’ve got data entry, testing, e-mails, problems with the boss, and so on—enough to overwhelm you—but as you start journal writing, things become clearer and easier to understand: Data entry can actually wait till Thursday; Bill kindly offered earlier to do my testing; For e-mails, I can check them now; the boss is just upset because Becky called in sick, etc.

You become better able to focus and reason your tasks out, and this is an indispensable and useful skill to have.

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3. Journals Improve Insight and Understanding

As a positive consequence of improving your mental clarity, you become more open to insights you may have missed before. As you write your notes out, you’re essentially having a dialogue with yourself. This draws out insights that you would have missed otherwise; it’s almost as if two people are working together to better understand each other. This kind of insight is only available to the person who has taken the time to connect with and understand themselves in the form of writing.

Once you’ve gotten a few entries written down, new insights can be gleaned from reading over them. What themes do you see in your life? Do you keep switching goals halfway through? Are you constantly dating the same type of people who aren’t good for you? Have you slowly but surely pushed people out of your life for fear of being hurt?

All of these questions can be answered by simply self-reflecting, but you can only discover the answers if you’ve captured them in writing. These questions are going to be tough to answer without a journal of your actions and experiences.

4. Journals Track Your Overall Development

Life happens, and it can happen fast. Sometimes we don’t take the time to stop and look around at what’s happening to us at each moment. We don’t get to see the step-by-step progress that we’re making in our own lives. So what happens? One day it’s the future, and you have no idea how you’ve gotten there.

Journal writing allows you to see how you’ve changed over time, so you can see where you did things right, and you can see where you took a misstep and fell.

The great thing about journals is that you’ll know what that misstep was, and you can make sure it doesn’t happen again—all because you made sure to log it, allowing yourself to learn from your mistakes.

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5. Journals Facilitate Personal Growth

The best thing about journal writing is that no matter what you end up writing about, it’s hard to not grow from it. You can’t just look at a past entry in which you acted shamefully and say “that was dumb, anyway!” No, we say “I will never make a dumb choice like that again!”

It’s impossible not to grow when it comes to journal writing. That’s what makes journal writing such a powerful tool, whether it’s about achieving goals, becoming a better person, or just general personal-development. No matter what you use it for, you’ll eventually see yourself growing as a person.

Kickstart Journaling

How can journaling best be of use to you? To vent your emotions? To help achieve your goals? To help clear your mind? What do you think makes journaling such a useful life skill?

Know the answer? Then it’s about time you reap the benefits of journal writing and start putting pen to paper.

Here’s what you can do to start journaling:

Featured photo credit: Jealous Weekends via unsplash.com

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