Tag Archives: Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Most Common Biases in Business Decisions

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that one of topics that I write about the most is cognitive biases. So, when I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review that neatly wrapped up some of the more common biases in business decisions, I just had to comment on it.

I agree with just about everything in this table (?), but I’m surprised about one thing: the endowment effect. That is, I’m surprised it’s not listed in the table. Specifically, listed under ‘stability biases’ as this is where it would fit. To refresh your memory:

In short, it means that people want more money for something than they’d be willing to pay for it. Put differently: we overvalue that which we own. You could think of a simple example of this through the course of a negotiation. When negotiation with someone, we’ll probably overvalue what we bring to the table. Someone may offer you $50 for your 25-year old keyboard (piano), but you think it’s worth at least $75. Barring any outside appraisal, the endowment effect is likely at play here.

Given the number of deal-making that takes place on a regular basis, I’m surprised that we didn’t see this as part of the table. It seems to me that in business, when money is often the thing that’s held in the highest regard (for better or for worse), you’d want to have people with the decision-making power understand that they may be overvaluing what’s theirs.

Upon further reflection, I can understand why one may not see it as a “common” bias because in today’s society, (at least in Western cultures), the common transaction is cash for stuff and not stuff for stuff (barter). If bartering were more the name of the game, then I would certainly want to see the endowment effect on that list. Either way, though, it’s certainly worth remembering that we tend to overvalue the stuff we have.

The Sunk Cost Trap on TV: Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope

A few months ago on the popular TV series “Scandal,” the fictional President of the United States fell into the sunk cost trap:

We have to get Olivia back, not just because I love her, not just because having her out there is a threat to national security. There are soldiers who are never coming home because I tried to get her back. Someone’s father, someone’s husband. I have killed so many mothers’ sons trying to get her back. The flags placed on the coffins where they lay are there because they had the courage to give their lives and I did not have the courage to give Liv’s, so she has to come back because their sacrifice damn well has to mean something. They cannot have died for nothing. They cannot have gone to their death for no other reason than I asked them to.

If you’ll remember from my post about the sunk cost trap a couple of years ago:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted.

Do you see the parallels?

Now, I totally get why the writers of Scandal couldn’t have the fictional President of the United States not continue to try and rescue Olivia Pope (how could there be a show without Olivia?), but I wish they didn’t have to write it in this way. In actuality, based on what he’s saying, it sounds like he’s come to the realization that sending more troops to war is a bad idea, so right there — right at the point — is when he should stop sending troops to war. Right then, he has the knowledge that continuing down the same path is the wrong thing to do, so he should stop. His rationalization for continuing is the sunk cost trap.

The thing that worries me is that by having things play out like this, it’s almost affirming that what the President is doing is the “right” thing or that it is the only choice he has. Certainly, there are plenty of other courses of actions he could have chose (many that probably wouldn’t make for good TV). Most people probably won’t find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to continue a war (or start a war, for that matter) for dubious reasons (or any reason, for that matter), but seeing stuff like this on TV, in a way, gives people an idea of how they can do things. I’d much rather popular entertainment actually err on the side of educating viewers, if it’s going to incorporate lessons of this nature.

I can already hear you yelling at me that this doesn’t make for good TV or entertainment (I know, I alluded to that earlier), but can’t we find a way to blend effective decision-making with entertainment, so that while we’re being entertained, we’re also learning something, too?

Meditation Mitigates Effects of Cognitive Biases

There have been thousands of scholarly articles written about the myriad benefits of meditation, but the one I came across recently was one of the first that confirmed one of my previously held beliefs: meditation helps you make better decisions.

The thing that struck me most about this study were the similarities to an experiment I conducted (on intuition and decision-making) as a research assistant. I had a condition where students would meditate for a short time and then use their intuition to make decisions. The results weren’t as I, (the research assistant I was working nor the professor), had hoped. I wrote it off as the the reluctance of undergraduates to meditate, but in this study, in particular, studies 2a and 2b, the researchers used undergraduates (approximately 200 combined) and they meditated!

In the second study, the researchers had the undergraduates listen to a 15-minute audio track, which was was specifically designed for this study. In one condition, students listened to a mindfulness meditation created by a professional mindfulness-meditation instructor and in the other, the students listened to a track, again, by a professional mindfulness-meditation instructor, that continuously instructed students to think about whatever came to mind. This second condition was called the “mind-wandering” condition and previous research used a similar method as a control for mindfulness experiments.

As I already mentioned in the opening paragraph, the researchers found that increasing mindfulness (i.e. meditation) reduced the effects of cognitive biases (i.e. the sunk cost fallacy). My favourite part of this study [Emphasis added]:

It is particularly notable in this set of studies that increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias occurred after only a brief recorded mindfulness-meditation induction. Many prior mindfulness-meditation interventions have involved 8 weeks of face-to-face training (Brown & Ryan, 2003); by comparison, our 15-min recorded manipulation is substantially more practical.

Many people have gotten it into their heads that the positive effects of meditation takes weeks to manifest. Here is tangible proof that — today — meditation can help you make better decisions. Also:

We also encourage research investigating how mindfulness practice might improve other decision-making processes and outcomes.

Absolutely! I would suspect that meditation would help guard against a whole host of other cognitive biases, but it would be fantastic if there were scientific evidence to back this up. For instance, years ago when I was the president of the student body, I once tried to begin a general assembly meeting with a quick 1-minute meditation, but the maturity level just wasn’t there. Even after 10 seconds, some of the representatives couldn’t handle the silence. I take the blame for that as I probably didn’t do the method justice by properly introducing it with the research. Can you imagine, if, before every semi-major decision, you took 10, 5, 2, or even 1 minute just to sit still and clear your mind of the previous discussion. I wonder how much lost revenue there is from not taking a moment to pause and reflect before a decision is made.

I should say, I’m sure that there is certainly time between major decisions (i.e. mergers & acquisitions, although, there is fascinating research on how big of a failure those can be), but I’m thinking about the mid-level manager who makes many decisions in a day that can affect the bottomline of a company. The managers that make quick decisions about whether to go with this contract or that contract, whether to make this purchase or that purchase. Maybe that’s a good place to start with more research.

ResearchBlogging.orgA. C. Hafenbrack, Z. Kinias, & S. G. Barsade (2013). Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797613503853

Ignore Sunk Costs: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 1

It can be really fun to write a series of posts on a particular topic. By my count, I’ve done this at least seven times so far. Today, I’d like to start what I hope will be an oft-read series on biases in judgment and decision-making (to some, cognitive biases). Because of my background in psychology and my interest in decision-making, I thought it would be wise to share with you the things that I’ve learned either through the classes I’ve taken (the classes I’ve taught!) or the research I’ve read. With each bias, my goal is to explain the bias and offer some possible avenues for not falling into the trap of the bias. Today, we start with one of the big ones: the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk costs are those costs that have already happened and can’t be recovered. For instance, let’s say you buy an apple and bite into it. The money you used to buy that apple can’t be recovered — it’s a sunk cost. Now let’s say the apple doesn’t taste very good (maybe it’s inorganic). You might say, ‘well, I’ve already paid for the apple, so I might as well eat it.’ NO! That’s the sunk cost fallacy! Just because you’ve already bought the apple and paid for it, doesn’t mean you have to eat it. If it tastes bad, by golly, don’t eat it!

That’s a rather basic example of the sunk cost fallacy, so let’s look at one that might seem a bit more applicable. Sunk costs often come into the fray when they’re contrasted with future costs. Let’s say you’ve bought a subscription to a newspaper or a magazine. Because of your subscription, you get a discount when it’s time to renew your subscription. Now, let’s say that in that year of your subscription, you discovered that there was another newspaper/magazine that you preferred (maybe The Economist?). When it comes time to renew your subscription, you look at the two options to either subscribe to The Economist or continuing with your other subscription. You find out that the discounted price for your current newspaper/magazine will be the same price as The Economist. You say to yourself, “well, I’ve already subscribed to this newspaper and spent so much money on it, so I might as well keep subscribing to it.” NO! That’s the sunk cost fallacy. The money you’ve spent on the subscription for the other newspaper/magazine can’t be recovered! You can’t get it back. As a result, it shouldn’t affect the decision you make now about whether to choose it or The Economist

There’s one more quick example that I want to highlight: war. From a paper by a professor at Princeton:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted. [Emphasis added]

Pay particular attention to that last sentence. That is the sunk cost fallacy in action.

Ways for Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy

So, now that we’ve looked at the sunk cost fallacy, how can we avoid it? Well, the first step in avoiding the sunk cost fallacy is recognizing it. Hopefully, the above examples have given you an idea of how this bias can arise. There are a two other ways I want to highlight that you can use to avoid this trap.

1) What am I assuming?

The crux of the sunk cost fallacy is based on an assumption. That is, you’re assuming that because you’ve already spent money on X, that you should keep spending money on X. If you look at what it is that you’re assuming about a situation, you just might find that you’re about to step into the sunk cost trap.

2) Are there alternatives?

Related to the above example is alternatives. You’re not bound to a decision because you’ve made a similar decision in the past. Just because you bought the ticket to go to the movie, if another activity presents itself as more enticing, you’re allowed to choose that one instead. In fact, if when you sit down to watch the movie, it’s bad, you’re allowed to get up and walk out. Don’t fall into the sunk cost trap thinking that you have to stay because you paid for it. There are any number of things you could be doing: going for a walk, calling an old friend, etc.