In behavioural psychology, the phenomenon of the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy was first identified by researchers Kahneman and Tversky in 1970s. It describes the tendency for people to continue to pursue an option, once investment has been made, even if it is not beneficial to them. This phenomenon has been traced in a variety of human behaviour; from buying habits (continuing an unused gym membership), to political decisions (the fallacy is also known as the ‘Concorde’ fallacy), to relationships.
The fallacy shows that ‘investment’ is emotionally associated with loss; the investment of time, money or resources, if proven to have ‘been for nothing’, would make the sensation of loss even greater. In reality, it is not possible to reverse decisions which have already been made in the past; investments of money, time and energy, once spent, cannot be recovered; so it may not be beneficial to hold ourselves hostage by those investments.
The ‘sunk cost’ fallacy may be particularly relevant for us as we get older. As children, we regularly have little agency over the rhythm of our daily lives; adults decide the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the school we attend, the place we call home. The process of growing up is often imagined as a process of increased personal agency. Alongside new choices however, new constraints emerge; education, opportunities, work schedule, family and financial commitments. The narratives given to us as children, by our parents and wider environment, about how the world functions, our duty to others, what a ‘good’ life looks like, often remain with us as well, which can provide an additional, internal constraint. It is all too easy to tell ourselves that choices are not available to us, and that we are obligated to continue investing in the decisions we made a long time ago, even if they no longer serve us.
Psychological therapy helps people confront their relationships with change, and with fallacies such as the sunk-cost fallacy. It can help people come to terms with losses associated with change, in sharing their concerns with a trained professional. Therapy can also help people imagine the potential future value of change, and help them make changes in a goal-oriented way.
Elsa Minns, Fernwood Clinic Team
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