Let’s imagine that you had saved up for an entire year to go on a ski trip. After months of scrimping and saving, you finally booked the trip. You spent weeks looking forward to your perfect vacation and spent hundreds of dollars more on clothing and ski gear.
Unfortunately, the day before you have to leave, you become extremely sick. To top it off, you sprained your ankle that same day and the weatherman tells you the forecast will be extremely unfavorable. You can barely get out of bed and are in constant pain. The very idea of driving eight hours in terrible weather to the ski resort fills you with misery. Would you choose to stay at home or would you choose to go?
Here’s the important part — The trip is non-refundable. So, whether you go or not, you will not get your money back. So, your options really are:
- Go on the ski trip, feel miserable — don’t get your money back.
- Don’t go on the ski trip, feel comfortable at home — don’t get your money back.
It’s clear that the rational decision would be to stay at home since neither decision will result in getting your money back but one decision will at least allow you to be comfortable. But we know that’s not what most people would do.
We choose the less rational option for several reasons. We feel that it would be a waste not to go because we paid for it. We feel guilty or stupid that we invested so much and got nothing for it. Other times, we continue to fool ourselves by thinking that if we go, we might gain something. The reality is that choosing to stick to the plan will only cause us to suffer more for no extra gain.
In Economics terms, this is called the sunk cost fallacy. It describes our natural human bias to continue investing in something that is no longer serving us or might even be detrimental to us because we have invested time, cost, and effort in it. We do this even though the continuous investment will not result in us recovering the sunk cost. It is called a fallacy because we think we can gain something if we keep investing but the cost is actually gone forever.
Now let’s imagine that instead of scrimping and saving for a year, you got the ski trip for free. The trip rolls around and you get sick, sprain your ankle, and find out that the weather will be awful. Now, what would you do? For most of us, it’s a no-brainer. We would crawl back into our cozy bed, grateful for the chance to continue another Netflix marathon.
What was the difference between the paid and free scenario? Sunk cost.
So, the way to help your mind escape the fallacy is simply to remove the sunk cost by asking yourself, “Given what I know today — I’m sick, I have a sprained ankle, and the weather is awful — would I choose to pay for the trip now?” If the answer is no. Then you shouldn’t go.
What has all this got to do with relationships?
It turns out, one of the most common places that the sunk cost fallacy plays out is in relationships. Psychologists established that money, time, and effort previously invested have a significant impact on influencing people to stay in unhappy relationships. They also discovered that the longer the relationship has been going on, the more time people were willing to continue investing in a failing relationship. This also applies to high school friends we’ve outgrown that we now have toxic relationships with.
If you find yourself saying things like “We’ve just been together for so long” or “I’ve invested so many years and we’ve worked so hard at it,” or “We just have so much history” then you too may be a victim of the sunk cost fallacy.
Escaping the sunk cost fallacy — Solution 1
If you think you may be experiencing the sunk cost fallacy in your relationships but are not sure, you can ask yourself this simple question:
“If I hadn’t invested “x” years of my life in this person and given everything that I know about them now — would I still choose this person to be in my life today?”
This question is the equivalent of the scenario where you got the trip for free. It’s helping you make a decision that best serves you today by removing an irrelevant, sunk cost in the past that you can’t recover. It is asking you if the current costs outweigh the current benefits.
The question assumes that you know everything about them that you currently do. That is that you know how willing they are to communicate authentically, to express themselves honestly, to behave respectfully, and most importantly — to invest in you. The question is helping you make sure that the only reason you are staying is not because of sunk costs you can’t recapture again.
This question is incredibly powerful because many couples operate on autopilot after a while. Once people are in a relationship or married, very few people consciously choose their partner again every day or even every year. You don’t really have to because society tells you what to do — get married, buy a house, have children, etc. All these events require huge effort, time, and financial sunk costs that make leaving very hard no matter how unhappy people are.
One year can easily become 5 years then 10 years then 20 years and one day they realized that they had stopped choosing their partner a long time ago but they just didn’t feel like “wasting” all the years by leaving. For many couples, sunk costs are the only thing holding them together.
Escaping the sunk cost fallacy — Solution 2
Another way to tell if you are a victim of the sunk cost fallacy is to ask yourself why you are choosing to stay in your relationship and to reflect on your immediate and uncensored response. For example, let’s look at two common answers with very subtle differences:
Answer A: “I need to stay because I’ve invested so much time and effort into this relationship.”
Answer B: “I want to stay because we’ve grown so much and overcome so much together in the years we’ve been together.”
See the difference? Although both answers value the past investment and relationship history, one focuses on how much you’ve lost (that you can’t recover), while the other is focused on how much growth you’ve gained. Gains can be anything you personally value including self-growth, communication skills, and beautiful children. Answer A also clearly shows that staying is an obligation where answer B shows that staying is a desire.
Remember that whichever choice you choose, you will not get the years you spent with that person back but you can at least choose to be happy instead of miserable in the future.
Many years ago, a scandal exploded in my friendship group when one of my close friends cheated on her boyfriend of 12 years with someone else in the group. When I spoke to the boyfriend, he said something to me that really surprised me. He said, “I’m glad she ended our relationship. I knew it wasn’t working but I wasn’t strong enough to end it. I’m grateful that she had the courage to walk away.”
He didn’t appreciate the way she did it but he knew that they had both stopped choosing the relationship a long time ago. They had been living on autopilot, bound together by their sunk costs.
At the end of the day, the best relationships are when both people intentionally choose to be there and to perform acts of love every single day.
“Love is a verb, not a noun. It requires action; intention. There is no being, only doing.” — E.M. Walsh