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Understanding Sunk-Cost Fallacy: How to Overcome Irrational Decision-Making

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Introduction

The sunk-cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that affects decision-making. It occurs when people make choices based on the amount of time, money, or resources they have already invested, rather than based on what would be best for them moving forward.


In this blog, we will explore what sunk-cost fallacy is, how it affects us, the behaviours it can lead to, and tips for changing those behaviours. Additionally, we will discuss how a psychologist can help individuals overcome the sunk-cost fallacy.


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What is Sunk-Cost Fallacy?

The sunk-cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that leads individuals to make irrational decisions based on past investments, rather than future outcomes. The name "sunk cost" refers to money or resources that have already been spent and cannot be recovered. Individuals often feel that if they have already invested time, money, or resources into something, they should continue investing to justify those past investments. This can lead to irrational decision-making and poor outcomes.


How Does Sunk-Cost Fallacy Affect Us?

The sunk-cost fallacy can affect us in many ways, from small decisions like finishing a book we're not enjoying, to major life decisions like staying in a job that makes us unhappy. It can lead to individuals continuing to invest in something that is not working, simply because they have already invested time or money. This can lead to wasted resources, missed opportunities, and negative outcomes.


Behaviours Associated with Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Some common behaviours associated with sunk-cost fallacy include continuing to invest in a losing stock, staying in an unfulfilling job or relationship, and completing a project even when it's no longer viable. Additionally, individuals may ignore warning signs that indicate they should cut their losses and move on.


Examples of Behaviours Related to Sunk-Cost Fallacy

There are several examples of behaviours that arise from sunk-cost fallacy, including:


  1. Continuing to attend a college program or course, even though it is not enjoyable or relevant because a lot of time and money has already been invested in it.

  2. Staying in a job that is unfulfilling or unsatisfactory because of the amount of time and effort invested in it, despite the availability of better opportunities.

  3. Investing more money into a failing business instead of cutting losses and moving on, because of the amount already invested.

  4. Continuing to watch a TV show or read a book that is not enjoyable, simply because the person has already invested time in it.

  5. Holding onto an unprofitable investment, such as a stock, because a lot of money has already been invested into it, instead of selling it to minimise losses.

  6. Gambling, where despite losing money you keep gambling to try to recover the money you have already lost, despite the probability being against you winning.

These behaviours can lead to individuals wasting resources and opportunities and can cause negative outcomes. It's important to recognise these behaviours and overcome the sunk-cost behaviours to make more rational decisions.


Tips for Changing Sunk-Cost Behaviors

One way to change behaviors associated with sunk-cost fallacy is to shift the focus from past investments to future outcomes. Instead of asking "How much have I invested?", ask "What will be the outcome of this decision?". It's also helpful to consider alternative options and evaluate them based on their potential for success, rather than past investments.


How Can a Psychologist Help?

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

A psychologist can help individuals overcome sunk-cost fallacy by providing them with cognitive-behavioural therapy, which involves identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with more positive, productive ones. Additionally, a psychologist can help individuals develop healthy decision-making skills and identify behaviours that lead to sunk-cost fallacy.


Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help address behaviours arising from the sunk-cost fallacy by promoting present-moment awareness and acceptance. Practising mindfulness can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and emotions and notice when they are making decisions based on past investments rather than future outcomes. By being mindful of these patterns, individuals can start to challenge them and make more rational decisions.

Here are some specific ways mindfulness can help address behaviours arising from the sunk-cost fallacy:

  1. Improved Self-Awareness: Mindfulness can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This self-awareness can help them recognise when they are making decisions based on past investments rather than future outcomes.

  2. Acceptance: Mindfulness encourages individuals to accept their thoughts and feelings without judgment. By accepting their emotions, individuals can avoid getting stuck in negative thought patterns and be more open to making rational decisions.

  3. Focus on the Present: Mindfulness emphasises the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. By focusing on the present, individuals can make decisions based on current circumstances and future outcomes, rather than past investments.

  4. Reduced Stress: Practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can cloud judgment and lead to irrational decision-making. By reducing stress, individuals can approach decision-making with a clearer mind and make more rational choices.

Overall, mindfulness can help individuals overcome the sunk-cost fallacy by promoting present-moment awareness, acceptance, and rational decision-making.


Flow

Flow can help with behaviours arising from the sunk-cost fallacy by providing a state of optimal experience, where individuals are fully engaged in an activity and focused on the present moment. Flow can help individuals break free from the sunk-cost fallacy by shifting their focus from past investments to future outcomes and the present moment.


Here are some ways flow can help with behaviours arising from the sunk-cost fallacy:

  1. Increased Focus: Flow requires individuals to be fully engaged in an activity, which can help them break free from the past and focus on the present moment.

  2. Clarity of Goals: Flow provides individuals with clear goals and feedback, which can help them focus on future outcomes rather than past investments.

  3. Sense of Control: Flow provides individuals with a sense of control over their actions, which can help them break free from the sunk-cost fallacy and make decisions based on future outcomes.

  4. Positive Emotions: Flow is associated with positive emotions, such as enjoyment and satisfaction. These emotions can help individuals feel more confident in making decisions based on future outcomes, rather than past investments.

Overall, flow can help individuals break free from the sunk-cost fallacy by providing a state of optimal experience where they are fully engaged in an activity, focused on the present moment, and making decisions based on future outcomes rather than past investments.


Conclusion

The sunk-cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that affects decision-making and can lead to negative outcomes. By understanding how it works, the behaviours it can lead to, and tips for changing those behaviours, individuals can make more rational decisions. Seeking the help of a psychologist can also provide additional support for overcoming this bias and developing healthy decision-making skills.


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Disclaimer

The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. Prior to making any decisions, we recommend consulting your treating doctor, health professionals, and legal representatives. This is particularly important if you have health concerns, existing mental health or medical conditions, or if you feel you are not coping.


(c) 2023 Dean Harrison

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