Brief article on the psychology of sunk costs in the Atlantic:
The costs to a person who does not know when to quit can be enormous. In economics it's known as sunk cost fallacy, though the costs are more than financial. While we recognize the fallacy almost immediately in others, it's harder to see in ourselves. Why?
There are several powerful, largely unconscious psychological forces at work... But the most likely culprit is this innate, overwhelming aversion to sunk costs.
Sunk costs are the investments ... that you can't get back out. They are the years you spent training for a profession you hate, or waiting for your commitment-phobic boyfriend to propose. They are the thousands of dollars you spent on redecorating your living room, only to find that you hate living in it.
Once you've realized that you probably won't succeed, or that you are unhappy with the results, it shouldn't matter how much time and effort you've already put into something. If your job or your boyfriend have taken up some of the best years of your life, it doesn't make sense to let them use up the years you've got left. An ugly living room is an ugly living room, no matter how much money you spent making it so.
Recent research by Northwestern University psychologists Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui demonstrates an effective way to be sure you are making the best decisions when things go awry: focus on what you have to gain by moving on, rather than what you have to lose. When people think about goals in terms of potential gain, that's a "promotion focus," which makes them more comfortable making mistakes and accepting losses. When people adopt a "prevention focus," they think about goals in terms of what they could lose if they don't succeed, so they become more sensitive to sunk costs. This is the focus people usually adopt, if unconsciously, when deciding whether or not to walk away. It usually tells us not to walk away, even when we should.
Many of the folks in the comments seem to think the takeaway is "you should always walk away and never press on," and are arguing, "But sometimes the right thing to do is press on!"
That's not the lesson here. The lesson here is that "sunk costs make people irrational when they try to decide whether to quit or press on, and usually nudge them in the press-on direction."
The evidence seems to be that, if people emphasize future benefits as they weigh the outcomes of different possible paths, rather than emphasizing thoughts about what they have that might be lost, they more often choose strategies that include walking away from sunk-cost situations.
Sometimes walking away will be the better choice and sometimes it won't be. But once you've identified a source of systematic error, it's good to check for it when you're making a decision. Hindsight is 20/20, they say; and you can't get that in advance; but what you can cultivate is detachment from the past, and all kinds of detachment help you see with clearer eyes.
"I'm having trouble figuring out whether I should make a change. Could I be suffering from inordinate attachment to the status quo?"
I think part of the problem is that we think of the effort we've spent in the past as being, somehow, part of what we possess. We see the wished-for outcome, and know that we've expended effort and resources in pursuit of it, and we think of it as possessing a fraction of the outcome.
With many, very simple goals, it makes a lot of sense to think this way. If I have a goal of stocking up six months' supply of canned food and dry goods for emergency preparedeness, then after I've expended effort for a while I may have three months' supply, and a little more and I'll have four months' supply, and so on. If I have a goal of educating my five-year-old through high school, several years later I'll likely have educated my child through the third grade. Having extended part of the effort, I have made a real achievement, which happens also to amount to part of my original goal.
But a lot of goals aren't that way. Partial success is meaningless. If your goal is to get a certain job that requires a bachelor's degree, but you quit your degree program with half the credits you need -- they're not going to give you your job part-time. I think we have trouble thinking about these because, unlike "save food to eat later," these all-or-nothing games are often artificial constructs, consequences of complex society.
I've certainly been through big decisions. The kind where you can see two really great paths ahead of you, and you must choose one or the other, can sometimes be the toughest. Because you know that you will lose one of those two futures, and somehow you wish you could stay in the now, and cling to them as bright possibilities, equally possessed. The thing that might be gained seems as if it is also the thing that might be lost.
But of course it is not a thing that might be lost until it is a thing that you actually have. What you stand to lose by choosing the path to the left is not the path to the right. What you will lose is only the moment of standing at the crossroads and knowing that you could take one or the other.
Guess what. You lose that no matter what you decide.