Follow TV Tropes

Following

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Go To

"I'm well aware that there's a high chance that what we're doing may result in doomsday for us all. But I pushed my chips into the middle of the table long ago, so I might as well play my hand to the end."
Redcloak, The Order of the Stick

Sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes Bob to remain committed to a course of action because he's already spent time or resources on it, even though the commitment is irrational (i.e. he would be better off walking away). When Bob is engaging in this fallacy, he will remain set on the course of action even if the profit from his success would be less than what he's already spent.

Advertisement:

His line of thought might run thus:

I have already spent eight dollars on this contest. If I spend seven more, I can win the prize.
I could buy the prize elsewhere for five dollars.
But if I stop now, the money I already spent will be wasted, so I must continue.

This trope is not merely for any commitment to a course of action; the above is only a fallacy since Bob will be spending seven dollars instead of spending five. If Bob expects to only spend two dollars more on the contest, for example, as opposed to five, it would be valid to continue even if the total spent ends up being more than just buying the prize ($10 vs $5). In order for a situation to be the Sunk Cost Fallacy, all of the following must be true:

  1. Bob remains committed to a course of action.
  2. Bob is justifying continuing by citing the time and/or resources he has already spent.
  3. The cost of continuing will exceed the cost of Bob stopping, taking on the loss, and moving on.
Advertisement:

It is also important to note that this fallacy is entwined with economic theory and thus will discount other valid reasons Bob might wish to continue, for example if he was trying to win the contest to impress his peers, or that the shop might be closed so it becomes a matter of "spend 15 dollars now vs spend 5 dollars tomorrow" (this concept is known as Utility). Likewise, if Bob calculates that he could sell the prize for more than the 15 dollars total he expects to spend, then it would not be a Sunk Cost Fallacy either (though it would still be illogical, since Bob should instead buy the prize for $5 and sell that for greater profit instead).

This forms a particularly powerful combination with the Gambler's Fallacy, as Bob might not only continue because he does not want to have wasted his money, but also because the very fact he has made losses is evidence he is "due" for a win. These two false forms of reasoning drive ruinous gambling problems.

Advertisement:

Compare I've Come Too Far. Contrast Know When to Fold 'Em and Tiger by the Tail.

Also called

  • Foot in the door (in sales)
  • Camel's nose (in social psychology)
  • Throwing good money after bad (in business)
  • Pay-or-play (in sports and entertainment)
  • Pouring sand down a rat hole (usually in politics)

Examples:

    open/close all folders 
    Comic Book 
  • In the Disney Ducks Comic Universe, this is ultimately why Magica is after Scrooge's #1 Dime: as explained when her backstory was revealed, originally the Witches Council, as part of the Rite of Passage any witch has to go through to reach adulthood, gave her the Midas Touch quest that requires a coin touched and owned for any length of time by the world's billionaires, but the task had been so hard and infuriating that by the time she went to collect the last coin from Scrooge, that was willing to just sell her a dime for a dollar, the reveal he had that coin for his entire life caused her to focus on it exclusively because it would make the Midas Touch charm much better than a random coin, and while the Witches Council has realized facing Scrooge is an impossible task and is willing to let her take a different quest, she refuses because she put too much effort into taking Scrooge's coin to even consider anything else unless it would give her the ability to take the Dime in the process.

    Fan Works 
  • In the sequel to The Dark Lords of Nerima, The Dark Lords Ascendant, this is the Big Bad Tanizaki Kazuo's Fatal Flaw. His Evil Plan was to use a clone of Sailor Moon called Unit Zero to take control of the Silver Crystal to reshape reality so he's on top of the entire world. Unfortunately for him, the Nerima Wrecking Crew throw a monkey wrench into this plan, allowing Sailor Moon to survive. Tanizaki, needing to kill Sailor Moon for his plan, tries multiple times to finish her off, getting increasingly desperate as his resources dwindle. For his ultimate plan, Tanizaki makes a deal with The Nameless One that could result in it being freed, which would be The End of the World as We Know It. All the while, Tanizaki kept believing that if he could just get the Silver Crystal, he could fix everything the way that he wanted. Ultimately, Sailor Moon foils him by splitting the Crystal so both she and Unit Zero could survive, rendering Tanizaki's plans All for Nothing. And that isn't even the end of it, since Ranma manages to figure out that Tanizaki's using a Soul Jar to gain immortality, and has Ryouga destroy it, rendering Tanizaki mortal again and allowing Ranma to kill him. All of which could have been avoided if Tanizaki had realized that he should have given up earlier.
  • King (MHA): In the wake of the Kamino Incident, U.A. defended Katsuki from his detractors, insisting that he would become a great hero. When Katsuki endangers this by using excessive force against a villain and killing them, the school goes to great lengths to cover up what happened — and their methods show that they consider him to be an asset rather than a person.
  • In the Triptych Continuum, this is the central reason the Cutie Mark Crusaders keep going. They become fanatics in the name of their cause, and to stop would invalidate everything which had come before — including all the accidents, disaster relief forms, reparations, and tree sap. The fallacy winds up being summarized in a speech by Apple Bloom, and the voicing of it is part of what finally breaks the Crusade and convinces Apple Bloom that they've gone way too far.
    Apple Bloom: Gotta do it for a day because y'try. Then y'go for a week 'cause iffin y'don't, y'wasted the day. Then it's a moon, lots of moons, and then when it's a year, it's gotta be more. We keep goin' an' goin' 'cause if we ever stop, then it means we wasted everything. An' we could just keep goin' til we're grown up, out of school, but we won't have jobs because we don't have marks and the only thing we can do is look some more. It's nearly three years an' if Ah do it for one more day, it could turn into... It's too much, an' Ah think — it's been too much for a while. Too long. An' — an' it ain't worth it no more.

    Film 
  • Alluded to in First Man when Neil Armstrong is nearly killed in the LLRV accident. His seniors tell him it's too risky for him to fly such a dangerous machine again. Neil points out that it's the best training they have for how to fly the real lunar module, and that it's a "little late" to talk about not risking the lives of the astronauts. It's clear that Neil commits to the Apollo program because he thinks that backing out would make the sacrifices of the earlier astronauts, and other pilots who died during test flights, count for nothing.

    Literature 
  • In Conned Again, Watson! by Colin Bruce, a book that uses the Sherlock Holmes characters to explain statistics, Holmes explains this fallacy and several others to the client, a businessman who is putting more money into a less successful venture because it cost more to start with, and Watson thinks smugly that he can avoid mistakes like that. The following day, Watson buys a loaf of bread for sandwiches, and then walks past a street vendor selling ham sandwiches at a reduced price to get ham from the butcher. When Holmes points this out, Watson, of course, replies "But I had already bought the bread."
  • Reacher Gilt's scam in the Discworld novel Going Postal relies heavily on this. Even as the service on the Grand Trunk semaphore line gets worse and worse, he sweet-talks investors and board-members into "throwing good money after bad" while pocketing most of it and covering it up with tricky accounting and corporate buzzwords like "embracing diversity" and "synergistically". Not-quite-reformed con artist Moist von Lipwig is equal parts impressed and disgusted when he realizes what Gilt is up to.
  • The Licanius Trilogy: A variant of this fallacy is part of why the loyalist faction of the Venerate stay loyal to Shammaeloth. It promises the power to rewrite the past, meaning that all the atrocities the Venerate committed to get where they are can be undone. And so the Venerate persist in their faith, even in the face of mounting evidence that they were lied to and Shammaeloth has nothing but pain and suffering in mind, because giving up on their loyalty to Shammaeloth would mean admitting that all their crimes can never be undone.
  • Extensively discussed in The Dresden Files short story "Bigfoot on Campus" in reference to the White Court of Vampires. Both Harry and River Shoulders reflect on how the White Court is founded on the Motivational Lie started by "some ancient bastard/bitch" stating that it's okay for them to be emotion-draining monsters. The aforementioned bastard/bitch's descendants have then been intentionally obscuring the truth from their own children until it's too late, and subsequently invoke this trope afterwards so that the new vampire will fall into line and accept all the Court's teachings as valid because the only alternative would be realizing that there's no excuse for having killed another human being. Related to this, Charles Barrowill can't accept the possibility that he might not have been a murderer if his parents had just been honest with him, and so tries to use an Appeal to Tradition argument (which ultimately just boils down to this trope) to make sure that his daughter grows up to be as much of a miserable and inhuman monster as he is.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Cleaner (UK): Discussed by the Widow. By the time she realized that she was married to a boring selfish man, she had committed decades of her life to the marriage. She felt that if she left her husband it would render a good portion of her life a waste and she could not deal with that.
  • Community: In one of the documentary episodes, the Dean gets Annie to work as a script supervisor while he directs a commercial. He suffers from a severe case of Sanity Slippage, and after several days of putting up with his increasingly bizarre demands, Annie is completely out of it and ungroomed. She rationalizes the Dean's behaviour because she doesn't want to admit that she's wasted several weeks of her life helping him.
  • In a "Blogs of Doom" column in Doctor Who Magazine based on "The Brain of Morbius", Condo asks Solon why he needs to cut off the Doctor's head and put it on the Mix-and-Match Man he's created to house Morbius's brain, instead of just putting the brain in the Doctor's body. Solon replies that he's built a patchwork body and it took a lot of time and effort, and he's using it.

    Music 

    Podcasts 
  • The Last Podcast on the Left: In part 3 of their series on the Aum Shinrikyo cult, the hosts tell the story of a woman who joined the cult, fled multiple times, and each time was brought back and made to undergo the Bardo Initiation, a ritual meant to frighten her into staying. Eventually, when she fled again, she returned entirely on her own because she couldn't escape the thought of the cult's guru, Shoko Asahara, sending her to Hell. Hosts Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski note the Sunk Cost Fallacy as one of the reasons for this behavior. By leaving, all the suffering she went through while part of the cult, all the years spent there, all the years her family spent there because of her joining, would become All for Nothing. This idea would become a frequent talking point on future cult episodes, such as L Ron Hubbard's Scientology, Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, and Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate.
    Henry: The problem is that mostly when you put yourself in these set of circumstances, when have given up so much control, the idea that you were ever wrong about that is very embarrassing and very hard to come back from. When you have so fully subjugated yourself to someone else, in order to then believe that you were wrong the entire time means that you essentially gave up years of your life, and the shame and the grief associated with that causes these people to stick by these beliefs for a really long time. Because basically, in order for her to disbelieve that Asahara is real then she has to, then, also has to take into her mind that she went through the Bardo thing for no reason.
    Marcus: Yeah, and not only that, but she had a family there, as well. So, not only is she wrong, but she has also wasted her childrens' lives, she put her children through all of this. The whole belief system is in shambles.

    Video Games 
  • In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, this is one of Edelgard's Fatal Flaws. She absolutely refuses to accept any outcome for the war for Fódlan other than her in complete control of the continent, even when she's cornered in her capital city, Byleth's forces are breathing right down her neck, and on Azure Moon, Dimitri is directly offering her a peaceful surrender. If she quits now, everything she sacrificed for her vision of a new Fódlan was for nothing.
  • Aresh, the Arc Villain of Jack's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, uses a version of this to explain why he wants to restart the Pragia facility — the people running it did such horrible things to everyone there, including him, that they must have been pursuing some greater purpose, and its near-destruction during a riot means that all the pain that happened there was for nothing. Jack, meanwhile, is understandably scornful of the idea that the suffering caused at Pragia meant anything more profound than "the people running this place need to die".
  • Right before the beginning of Red Dead Redemption II, the van der Linde gang steals $150,000 (worth a little north of $4 million in today's dollar) off of a banking ferry. In their hasty retreat, the leader Dutch has to stash the take. The heist was supposed to their One Last Job as it was big enough for all two dozen of them to retire to normal lives. However, Dutch spends the rest of the main story of the game pouring more and more money into replacing the take which only further gets the law on their tail as well. Even though they have the money they need just sitting there, they just need to be patient. The more logical decision would have been to have the gang keep up operations as normal for a year or two and then have him go back to get the money or hire someone else to do it once the trail's gone cold, but Dutch is clearly suffering from ever increasing Sanity Slippage as the game goes on.
  • At the end of a "No Mercy" run (i.e. a "kill everyone in the game including and especially major characters" run) of Undertale, the Final Boss points out that you're pressing forward with your murdering spree not out of any sort of "good" or "evil" desire, but simply because you can, and because you can, you feel like you have to, even though there's no real benefit to persevering at this point. They also gladly point out that the best thing to do at this point is to seriously give up and do literally anything else. Because really, what do you personally have to gain from not only massacring the entire underground but then also destroying the entire world and selling your soul to reset the game at the cost of ruining all future good endings?
    i always thought the anomaly was doing this cause they were unhappy. and when they got what they wanted, they would stop all this. and maybe all they needed was... i dunno. some good food, some bad laughs, some nice friends. but that's ridiculous, right? yeah, you're the type of person who won't EVER be happy. you'll keep consuming timelines over and over, until... well. hey. take it from me, kid. someday... you gotta learn when to QUIT. and that day's TODAY.
  • This trope is what tragically amplifies the various misplaced Hero Complexes — specifically, Martin Walker and possibly John Konrad's — to catastrophic levels in Spec Ops: The Line. When the Damned 33rd failed in evacuating Dubai's civilians from encroaching sandstorms, trapping all of them together in the cut-off city, they somehow decided they had the moral authority to enforce martial law at gunpoint, resulting in various atrocities they felt compelled to continue, lest they invite further chaos and admit their actions were pointless. Martin Walker, when he arrives, falls into the same trap of thinking he has to "rescue everyone", is forced to kill in self defense, and by the end just winds up killing people left and right in the delusional hope that he can justify everything by killing some Final Boss. The game ultimately shows how easy good intentions cause bad results, and how people will keep persisting on a course of action rather than admit they are the problem making everything worse.
    "None of this would have happened if you just stopped."

    Web Animation 
  • Epithet Erased: When Molly questions why Mera, whose epithet leaves her in constant pain, doesn't just have somebody use the amulet to take it away, Mera remarks that if she does that, the past decade of training she put herself through in order to reach her current level of power would be All for Nothing.
  • Locus from Red vs. Blue. In his mind he has to keep following orders because admitting he has a choice now would mean admitting he had a choice in all his previous actions, and he can't face that.
  • Zee from Animated Spellbook talks about Team Funsize. While delving into the nightmare dungeon of Glitterhame, they lost a partymember, all their equipment, and were nearly beaten to death multiple times over, but had come too far to stop now. Zee specifically calls out that they had clearly never heard of the fallacy.

    Webcomics 
  • An Oglaf comic has a group of villagers decide to take a poorly built ship to war rather than cut their losses and have the months of hard work spent on building it be wasted. It doesn't end well for them.
    Viking: Seriously, how does a boat just catch fire all by itself?
  • The Order of the Stick has Redcloak both lampshade this and deconstruct it, as expressed in Start of Darkness. It's not that Redcloak believes in Lord Xykon's plan, or even likes the idea of what Xykon is trying to achieve; in fact, Redcloak hates Xykon's guts. The reason Redcloak stays around in spite of his hatred is that Redcloak believes that if he quits, it'll make all of the horrible things he's done worthless. This is in spite of Redcloak being told by both his brother and Xykon himself that this is an empty excuse. He continues to support Xykon despite being entirely too familiar with the lich's Bad Boss habits and knowing that completing the Plan with Xykon will not work out in his favor. But because Redcloak feels too invested to quit, Redcloak keeps himself trapped in villainy.
  • In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, the protagonist explains to recurring villain Fructose Riboflavinnote  that he's chasing a sunk cost, and that it likely feels like giving up on revenge would mean everything else was a waste. Fructose is both stricken by this realization, and really not amused.
  • In Penny Arcade, the trope is discussed and namedropped in "Finisher," when Tycho explains why he completed Cyberpunk 2077 despite not liking the game, likening it to eating at a buffet that makes him sick because he already paid for it. Gabe asks if he's heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and Tycho gives his less than accurate description of it.
    "It means that you need to maintain harmful behaviors in perpetuity because you made a bad decision a long time ago, and now you deserve to be punished."

    Real Life 
  • The Jolly Roger Telephone Company is a web-based company that provides bots that are designed to waste telemarketer time by responding with pre-programmed routines and other time-wasters like "Yeah" and "uh huh" to make the caller think there's a real person on the other end of the line. In some cases, even after having ages of their time wasted with a bot, the callers will still keep going, thinking that they've already spent all this time already, so at this point they have to get something out of the call. They will grasp at any straw, anything at all the bot says that leads them to believe that the person on the other end of the line is actually interested in what they're pitching. But, of course, there is no person on the other end of the line, only a bot that can never give them what they want because it isn't programmed to do so. note 
  • This was one of the factors in why the CED videodisc format never did well — it had been stuck in Development Hell since the 1960s and RCA was determined to see it through, despite the obvious shortfalls of the format in comparison to V/H/S and LaserDisc; they'd blown tons of money on it and it would be a severe blow to their corporate pride if they opted to scrap it. (This, along with NBC's issues at the time, wound up being RCA's Creator Killer; GE would purchase the company in 1986, largely for NBC, and discard the rest; the last CED titles were released that year, player production having ceased two years prior.)
  • In World War 2, following Japan's annexation of French Indochina, America passed an embargo on oil and other resources crucial to the Japanese war effort in order to force Japan to negotiate a peace with the Republic of China. Without that oil, Japan's war machine would literally run out of fuel in a manner of months. Japan's high command had two options. First, they could concede to America's demands and enter peace negotiations with China, but in doing so would likely give up most of Japan's gains and would dishonor Japan in the eyes of the Japanese public. Second, they could launch "Attack Plan South" by which the IJN would preemptively strike America's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor to open the way for an invasion of Britain and the Netherlands' oil-rich holdings in Southeast Asia and Oceania and just hope that the shock of a decisive, overwhelming victory would force America to back down. Naturally, Japan chose the second option, and by doing so not only lost Japan the war in China, but the rest of her empire and a large portion of her population as well.
  • 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 (as well as unrest on the home front that needed attention) and didn't know that, so they decided to cut their losses and sued first.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is a good example of why additional costs after the fact aren't necessarily this trope. When the Telescope was first deployed, there was a major flaw in the primary optical mirror; it has been ground to the wrong curve, making the images it sent back very blurry, and rendering the primary purpose of the telescope (clearer images outside Earth's atmosphere) mostly pointless. Some people quickly wrote off Hubble as a failure at that point, so when a mission to send up a new module to correct for the bad optics was announced, these people slammed NASA for throwing more money into a telescope they thought would never work properly. The fact was, NASA knew exactly what was needed to correct for the issue, thanks to documentation of the process used to grind the mirror, which was ground very precisely to the wrong shape. Long story short, the corrective module was sent up to (and installed in) the telescope, and afterwards, new images from Hubble were incredibly clear, as had been envisioned at the start of the project. The money spent to correct the optical issues (a relatively small amount compared to the overall cost of the telescope) proved to be money well-spent...and more to the point, the repair cost a fraction of the money that building a completely new telescope would have, for most of the same benefit (one of the telescope's original modules had to be removed for the corrective module to be installed).
  • Anoter aversion: when HMS Belfast, that warship on the Thames, was damaged by a mine during the second world war, it was deemed that the fastest repair solution would be more expensive than a new cruiser. That would have taken three years and dry dock space Britain didn't have however.


Top