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When somebody's sacrificed or invested a great deal in a cause or project, they tend to become irrationally dedicated to it. This applies even (or perhaps especially
) when the costs invested can't be recovered. More of a cognitive bias than anything.
If I spend fifteen dollars on this contest, I can win the prize.
I can buy the prize elsewhere for five dollars.
I have already spent eight dollars on the contest. Since I don't want the money to be wasted, I will continue.
Note that considering oneself committed due to time or resources already invested is not automatically
a fallacy, especially if it has resulted in other options being closed off. ("Stop dithering, we already paid the deposit.") It becomes so if an objective analysis of the situation suggests pulling out would be more beneficial or at least less harmful than continuing down the slippery slope. ("But now Honest John
says he needs a second
deposit on that bridge he's selling!")
Compare Know When to Fold 'Em
, I've Come Too Far
- Foot in the door (in sales)
- Camel's nose (in social psychology)
- Throwing good money after bad (in business)
- Pot committed (in poker, sometimes)
- Pay-or-play (in sports and entertainment)
- Pouring sand down a rat hole (usually in politics)
- In psychology this is generally related to cognitive dissonance theory, which is basically the idea that when people think of themselves one way, but act in another way they will try to rationalize it. Specifically people think they make good decisions, but when the decisions aren't paying off, they throw more effort after it to make the decisions good rather than admit they made a bad decision.
- It's also known on social psychology as a great way to bring someone into a group. Cults are known for using this: How about you read a flyer? Sure, that cost nothing. Hey, why don't you answer this quiz on how happy you are with your life? Well... You've already read the flyer, that's not much more effort. How about going to a session?
- More serious (and much more complicated) in life or death matters. Dead troops are a sunk cost, but many nations across history have continued on losing military campaigns because their leadership could not face up to having wasted troops.
- This is often the reason people will spend lots of time on internet arguments, even after they're losing. Or as Scott Adams put it, "Nothing makes [someone] argue harder than being proven wrong."
- This is one of the main reasons why people continue to play MMOs even when they aren't enjoying them.
- "Free-to-play" MMORPG games. After sinking substantial money into the game (to get powerups that nonpayers wouldn't have), the player feels compelled to continue, even when the grind is getting difficult. This is especially true of games where experience (or worse, levels) are lost for death. You pay up, or one lag-related death takes an enormous amount of experience. Despite getting to the point where even 0.10% experience takes hours while death loss takes only seconds, the player continues to play. It's worse in some ways than for subscription-based, since supposedly "nobody forced you to pay" (although the game itself may be balance-weighted toward payment, by making items scarce and leveling slow), making you feel personally committed rather than having paid what was effectively a usage cost.
- Similarly, people who don't enjoy playing a particular video game will keep playing it because of all the time they invested in it in the first place. This is usually along the lines of "Well if I don't beat the game, all the time I invested in it would be a waste." This is also the similar argument from people who try to beat the game on the hardest difficulty and refuse to quit no matter how many times they lose or how many hours they spend repeating the same sections in the game over and over again.
- In poker, a player is "pot committed" when he/she calls simply because the pot is large. Some players will do this with poor cards even when they have no chance to win just because they've already sunk a lot of money into the pot, even when there's no chance that they'll win. Note that being pot committed is not always this fallacy - sometimes, the pot is so big relative to the cost of calling that the strategically correct choice is to call even when your odds are slim (but non-zero). For example Odds are about 1 in 6.5, two of the nine remaining suited cards would leave a pair on the board.
- One example of this is the dollar auction. An emcee decides to auction off a dollar with a starting bid of one cent (which may be adjusted for inflation) - but there's a catch. The high bidder gets the dollar, but the second-highest bidder still has to pay their bid and gets nothing. The bidding will start off with each of the bidders standing to profit, but once the high bid reaches 99 cents, the second bidder has to choose between losing 98 cents or bidding one dollar and making nothing. After this, the first bidder has to choose between losing 99 cents or bidding $1.01 and losing a cent. This process of bidding will continue even though neither side stands to gain from future bids, except that by 'winning' they lose about one dollar less than if they had lost.
- Interesting game. The only winning move is not to play.
- Auction websites such as Quibid and Beezid work in a similar fashion, except that you have to purchase your bids for a much higher amount than the bid increments. To bid a price up by 10 cents, you might have to spend five dollars.
- Happens in labour disputes where management or unions try to recoup the losses from a strike or lockout, and that merely pushes the bargaining positions of the parties further apart.
- Within sociology, the combination of this and the Madonna Whore Complex often leads to girls feeling resigned to becoming sexually promiscuous after having had sex once. After all, they can only lose their virginity once and what does it matter after that?
- The Dutch public transport card system started out as a bad idea, turned out to be a worse idea, became a giant money sink, and still the government refused to just fess up and admit their mistake. A few years later, it's currently being debated as the worst thing that ever happened in the history of Dutch transport. Attempts by the government to just buy out the company responsible for the mess are still failing miserably.
- A common example is an automobile owner near the end of their vehicle's functional life. So many of us end up trapped in this Fallacy and wind up spending good money on repairs to stretch out the life of a car that's already on its last legs, because to not keep driving the thing after investing so much in it just seems like a waste.
- Stephen Colbert, on The Colbert Report, summed it up quite succinctly when discussing the American dilemma of whether torture was justified since it (allegedly) helped to capture and kill a hated terrorist. Stephen's usual Insane Troll Logic is applied to the point where, because America has already lost its beloved moral superiority by using torture, they have to keep torturing until it solves all of our problems, or:
- Supporters of The Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Iraq said that unless the U.S. continued the wars, the lives of soldiers who'd already died there would be wasted.
- The World War One poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae echoes this sentiment, with the ghosts of the fallen telling the living to keep fighting so they will not have died in vain.
''Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.''
- 419-scams work this way. A good scambaiter is able to turn the tables on the scammer, usually with hilarious effect.
- Gambling addictions usually fall into this trope. While people who are hooked on gambling are hooked on the rush of risking everything to win big, other addicted gamblers will gladly keep blowing money on a game until they can win back everything they lost just because they already lost money in the first place. For example, if someone were to lose $5000 in a game, they will keep spending money on that game until they can win back that $5000 plus the additional money spent to get back the initial losses. In other words, "I already invested so much money in this game, I may as well keep playing until I can win everything back." Overlaps with Gambler's Fallacy, because obviously a losing streak means you have to win something soon, maybe the very next game.
- Happens in sports a lot. When a big-name player signs a big-money contract then starts sucking, a lot of teams will continue to play him rather than exploring other options. Granted, this might have something to do with perception (signing a guy to a huge contract then benching him immediately would look very bad).
- Any large-scale project one party already invested large sums of money in only to see the project needing more and more cash due to unforeseen problems, missed deadlines, etc.
- How many people (probably even some reading this very page) have been (or currently are) in a relationship that they know is unhappy, unhealthy, and/or isn't going anywhere, but decide to stay because they've known their partner for so long and can't imagine life without them?
Looks like this fallacy but is not:
- When abandoning the current plan has costs that outweigh the benefit of switching to a better plan; for example, a penalty clause for cancellation of a contract that is higher than simply paying the contracted price until the contract runs out. Cell phones and cable/satellite services, health clubs, and auto leases often have these. (For example, a cell phone contract is 2 years at $20.00 a month, and has a $250.00 cancellation penalty. If 12 months or fewer remain on the contract, it costs more to cancel than it does to simply continue paying the contracted amount until the contract expires.) Another example would be, if in the contest above, the person had spent $11 rather than $8. Assuming victory was certain at $15, continuing to play would be a reasonable decision. Continuing to play costs $4 more, making $15 total. Stopping after spending $11 and simply buying the prize elsewhere for $5 costs $16 total — so why stop?
- Or if the contest itself is something fun enough to be worth at least $2 in its own right. This is how things like carnival prizes work.
- Or the contest is for charity, so even if you lose the money you spend is going to a good cause.
- The above examples simply point out that the Sunk Cost fallacy should account utility, not merely abstract value. Let's return to the carnival game example, where the player had sunk $8 into the game, victory was sure at $15, and the prize was available for purchase for $5 at the store tomorrow. Should the player desire to give one's child/date a memento of the fun day at the carnival, an individual might decide quite rationally that the utility of acquiring the prize that day, at the carnival, for $7 was higher than getting it tomorrow for $5. As long as dollars are replaced with utility, the Sunk Cost fallacy is inescapable. Gain/loss of reputation, happiness at acquiring a good in a particular context, secondary effects (such as the charity example), and so on would all roll up into utility, which would be a better measure if it were not frequently subjective, and even when objective either hard or impossible to quantify.
- It should be noted that in all these cases the sunk costs are still ignored, the utility of the prize is weighed against the $7 that still must be paid, not against the $8 that has already been sunk, etc.
- The relationship between military situations and this fallacy is rarely clear-cut. If you are close to a valuable objective then continued effort may be justified. If this decision was based on one's own sunk costs, it was at best Right For The Wrong Reasons.
- This was long argued to be the main reason why Russia lost the Russo Japanese War. By the end of the war Japan was winning militarily, but its economy was stretched to the breaking point, and their mobilization resources were completely depleted, as they had started drafting kids and geezers into the army, with the predictable outcome for troops quality and morale. Some analysts say that had Russia pushed just for a couple of months more, even in the wake of the horrific losses like Tsushima and Mukden, Japan would've sued for peace. On the other hand the Tsar's government had really lousy intelligence and didn't know that, so they decided to cut their losses and sued first.
- When the possible return is so great compared to the possible loss that it is deemed a reasonable risk to take. That's gambling, not fallacious.
- This works better with non-cumulative risks (like Lotto); otherwise, see pot committed above.
- Many people often believe that cost overruns on defense projects are an example of this, but usually they are not. For example, while it is true that a new generation of stealth fighters or other extremely expensive stuff can drag on for decades and have cost overruns of 500% or more, it is usually because defense planners want the new system at almost any price. The other reason for cost overruns is what is sometimes called the oversight paradox: If a project costs too much, policy makers may kill the project, meaning that the defense contractor will lose everything they've spent on the project. To protect themselves from this, defense contractors will often rush through the R&D phase as quickly as possible, because a weapons system becomes much harder to cancel once it is in production—too many workers will get laid off, making it politically unpalatable. That means that bugs in the system have to be fixed only after the system is already in production, which is much more expensive, leading to cost overruns. When a weapons system is secret, the lack of oversight often means that the designers can take their time, avoiding problems once the system goes into production; the U-2 spy plane, to give a famous example, came in on time and under budget, thanks in no small part to the lack of Congressional oversight.