Sunk costs — the resources invested in getting something before we’ve actually gotten it — should essentially never be a factor in deciding whether we continue to try to get the thing we are after. And yet, biologically, sunk costs turn out the be a bigger influence on our irrational need to keep trying than any other motivating factor. Or; why you are still in a relationship with your deadbeat significant other, working a dead-end job, living in a town with nothing to offer.
The “sunk cost fallacy” is an economic principle that suggests it is almost always a poor decision to heavily weight the amount of resources already spent that can’t be recouped in one’s decision to keep pursuing a goal (I.e., “I don’t want to see the concert since the lead singer endorsed Trump but I already paid for the tickets”).
In a paper published this week in Science, researchers found in experiments on mice, rats, and humans that the higher the sunk costs in a situation, the stronger their will became to keep pursuing a desired result. The paper describes this tendency as a “cognitive bias [that has] persisted across evolution” despite its relative lack of utility in good decision-making.
The study found that while sunk costs were a huge motivating factor, the costs are only perceived to add up from specific situations; for instance, time spent deliberating what decision to make, while a cost, didn’t have the same impact as actual work done. The authors suggested that there are slightly different decision-making processes for different costs, and future studies could focus on how they influence outcomes.
It’s bleak, but the bright spot is if we recognize this tendency to get over-attached to time or resources invested, we can at least try to discount them on an intellectual level and weight the possibilities of future outcomes a little heavier. If you’ve been in the job/relationship/town for years and, if you’re being honest with yourself, they’re never going to promote you/give you what you want/actually get revitalized into “the new Williamsburg,” here is your sign.