When people put their weight behind an idea or a belief, they become invested in it. They are likely to fight its corner rather than discard that idea or renounce their prior decision. This tendency to throw good resources after bad, rather than cut losses, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
Quitting is Not Always Wrong
People frequently become stuck with poor decisions that they keep holding on to hoping that they will eventually prove their efforts worthwhile. Here’s Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the bestselling exposition of human irrationality) in an interview with financial journalist Morgan Housel:
When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main trap that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.
Don’t Become Biased Against Quitting
Sunk cost fallacy is why people who have already wasted money on tickets to an awful movie continue to watch it to the end and waste their time instead of walking out of the cinema hall. It’s the urge to justify previous decisions using the next one—for example, when people force themselves to munch their way through an unsavory meal or when people waste time in dead-end romantic relationships because they’ve already devoted so much time to the relationships and irrationally hope things will improve someway.
Some leaders continue a project once an initial investment is made and found flawed because stopping the project would be tantamount to conceding that previously-allocated resources have been wasted. For this reason, the sunk cost fallacy is also called the ‘Concorde Effect’ after the Anglo-French supersonic jet. In the ’60s, even though there was never a sufficient demand from airlines for the Concorde, the British and French governments continued to subsidize the development and production of the Concorde instead of admitting that they had wasted billions on a non-viable undertaking. The airline industry had long understood that the economics of supersonic transport were dubious, which had forced Americans to abandon their preliminary studies of supersonic jets.
Idea for Impact: Know How to Cut Your Losses When Something’s Not Working
Sunk costs are backward-looking decisions. Don’t become excessively focused on a specific goal or outcome—you’ll become inflexible and unyielding. You’ll narrow your options and make yourself feel more limited and inhibited.
Don’t get attached to ideas and become affected by the sunk cost fallacy as your projects develop. Remain objective, identify the warning signs of losing propositions, and abandon lost causes where sensible. As the American cartoonist (of Peanuts fame) Charles Schulz once said, “No problem is so formidable that you cannot walk away from it.”