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Learning How to Let Go

Breaking Free From The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Finish. That was my word of the year for 2022. A word I defined in two ways:

  1. to complete things that I had previously started or
  2. to bring an end to it should it no longer serve me

I thought I would struggle in the completion part. Turns out, my problem was in the letting go.

For the last 5 years I have continued to work on a project’. The last 3 years I have wanted to walk away. But the time, effort and money I had already invested meant I continued despite the fact that my priorities had changed and it was no longer necessary for me to continue.

I thought it would be easy to let go. But it wasn’t. And it comes down to what is referred to as the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, also known as the Concorde Fallacy.

What is the Concorde Fallacy?

The definition of the Concorde Fallacy is the idea that you should continue to spend money on a project, product, etc. in order not to waste the money or effort you have already put into it, which may lead to bad decisions”. 1

The term comes from the project Concorde’, the building of the supersonic airline by British aircraft, engine manufacturers and the government which began in 1956 and which France joined in with in 1962.2

When the wheels came up on the first Concorde commercial flight in January 1976, the enterprise was already plagued by prohibitive cost overruns. By the last Concorde flight in 2003, the Anglo/French financial misadventure had become legendary.” Jim Blasingame 3

Thus the Concorde fallacy refers to the fact that the British and French governments continued to fund the aircraft even after it became apparent there was no longer an economic case for it.”4

Simply put, it is a metaphor for when we continue with an endeavour even though it makes us unhappy or worse off simply because of the time, money, and effort (the sunk costs’) that we’ve already invested.5

It’s not just about business

Now although this term is often used in business, evolutionary biologist’s have noticed that it happens in other areas of our lives too:

  • finishing books we’re no longer enjoying
  • finishing desert after paying for a 3 course meal despite the fact that we’re full and it doesn’t even taste good
  • going it one last try” in that unhappy relationship
  • investing more money and time into a project that we no longer enjoy (or need)

And the more we pay, the more committed we are at making it work.6 Even when we are unhappy. Even when it no longer serves us. Even when it is detrimental to our future or our health.

So why do we find it so difficult to walk away?

1. Pride prevents us from giving up on something

Pride was one of the reasons that the Concorde lasted as long as it did and it’s one of the reasons that we hold on for so long.7

After all, we want to convince ourselves and others that we’re not quitters. That we can handle anything. That we push and strive just so we don’t hear the words I knew it wouldn’t work out” either from the voice inside our head or from those around us.

Secondly, we don’t like to be wrong. If we start something it is because we believed at some point it was worth doing, that the benefits would outweigh the costs.8

But when it doesn’t happen, when the costs have outweighed the benefits we turn it on it’s head and confess that we just need more time’ or we need to work harder’. We convince ourselves that we need to invest more and we will get there. We cannot possibly be wrong.

2. Negative feelings about our sunk costs drive the behaviour

Even when we feel bad as we continue our endeavour, we do it anyway. And in fact, this feeling bad may be what is driving the behaviour in the first place.

Researchers have found that people stick to their guns more if they feel bad immediately after making a decision about sunk costs.9

Hence when we feel we have invested highly, we are less likely to walk away, even when we know it’s not right for us.

3. The more anticipated regret we have the more we hang on

Regret is a negative emotion that we experience when we realise or imagine that our current situation could have been better, if only we had made a different choice.10

Anticipated regret is what we experience when we think about what may happen if we walk away from something now. And although the regret would come from something that would happen in the future, we feel the emotion in the present.

Our anticipation of what could happen causes our brain and body to experience it as if it’s happening now11.

So if we believe that we may regret walking away from something, we are more likely to hang on and invest even more time, money and effort to ensure that regret does not happen after all.

And in fact the the more anticipated regret we experience, the more we hang on12.

Making the choice to walk away

As I said at the beginning, the last 3 years I have wanted to walk away from the project’ that I had started. But I couldn’t. I kept convincing myself that I just needed to get it done. That people would think I’m a quitter. That it would all be for nothing if I walked away.

I felt bad about the money and time I had invested already. The money and time that could have been spent on so many other things.

And then there was the anticipated regret. This one made the most sense to me. What if I needed it in future? What if my situation changes and I regret quitting? What if I’m making the wrong decision in walking away?

If I was to let go, I needed to work through all these thoughts.

Any decision going forward should not be based on what has happened in the past

Economic theory states that prior costs do not affect the objective outcomes of current decisions”. And thus we shouldn’t base decisions on what we have already invested.13

After all, it didn’t work for Concorde who were doing just that. They were looking back at what they had already spent and continued because of that fact. It took them 27 years and lots of taxpayer money to finally realise their mistake.14

When we start thinking…“I’ve got too much invested …” or If I just work harder …” or I just need more time …”, maybe we to think again.

Of course this is not just about money and business. But also about other aspects of our lives too. What has happened in the past has gone. It’s now that we need to think about.

Knowing why’ can help make decisions to quit

Research has found that people who are able to justify their decisions feel less bad about the investments they have made and as a result are less susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy15.

Firstly I need to be able to justify the time, money and effort that has already been spent. So despite my initial thoughts that the last 5 years were a waste, when I reflected on it I could appreciate all that I gained. The experience. The knowledge. The contacts. The lessons. None of it was a waste.

Secondly, I need to be able to justify my decision to let go. After all, we often pride ourselves for pushing through, for getting shit done and ticking things off our list. We pride ourselves for white-knuckling through shit even when it makes more sense to walk away. Sometimes we do not need to continue holding on to something.

For me, my decision to walk away came down to 3 things…

1. My priorities changed

All of our lives are in a constant process of change. Our thoughts, ideas, opinions, dreams, goals… everything changes. And of course, the last 3 years all of us have experienced even more changes thanks to covid.

As a result my own priorities have been replaced and so the reason that I started the project in the first place is no longer valid. Persevering at something that is not contributing to my current goals is simply a waste of time, effort, energy and of course, emotion.

2. There is no fun anymore

I get that it’s normal for every project’ to have ups and downs. There are things that we love to do and others we would rather not have to.

But when I realised that this project of mine was now an obligation which was draining me, I took it as another sign it was time to leave.

3. I was being pushed by fear

A couple of years ago I came across the idea that we’re either being pushed by fear or pulled by love. And I believe that’s true. So now whenever I have an opportunity to do something this is the question that I always come back to…

Am I being pushed by fear or pulled by love?

I have recently recognised that fear was behind the last 3 years of me needing to complete my project’. Fear of what others would think. The fear of being wrong. The anticipated regret.

I no longer want my life to be pushed by fear. Hell, that’s how I’ve spent the majority of the first half of my life. Now that I’m 40, I want things to be different. I want the next half of my life to be pulled by love.

Let love lead the way

When we have invested so much energy, time, effort and emotion into something it becomes extremely difficult to know when to quit, when to let go.

And we often believe that pushing forward, adding more resources will make it all worthwhile. We fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. A dangerous belief that’s driven by fear.

When this happens we need to question our values, our goals, desires and dreams. We need to justify that the time and energy already spent was not wasted. We need to know why it’s time to quit and identify our current priorities and beliefs.

And then, maybe, we can finally finish’ what we have started, by letting go and allowing love to lead the way.

Once she finally let go life took her where she needed to be

Sources


  1. Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) Concorde fallacy English meaning - Cambridge Dictionary’. Available at: LINK↩︎

  2. Blasingame, J. (2011) Beware Of The Concorde Fallacy’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  3. Blasingame, J. (2011) Beware Of The Concorde Fallacy’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  4. Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.) Concorde fallacy English meaning - Cambridge Dictionary’. Available at: LINK↩︎

  5. Blasingame, J. (2011) Beware Of The Concorde Fallacy’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  6. Arkes, H.R. & Blumer, C. (1985) The psychology of sunk cost’. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 35, 1, 124-140. Available at: LINK↩︎

  7. Blasingame, J. (2011) Beware Of The Concorde Fallacy’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  8. Arkes, H.R. & Blumer, C. (1985) The psychology of sunk cost’. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 35, 1, 124-140. Available at: LINK↩︎

  9. Martin, J. (2019) The low down on the sunk cost fallacy — Espresso Science’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  10. Brewer, N.T., DeFrank, J.T. & Gilkey, M.B. (2016) Anticipated regret and health behavior: A meta-analysis.’. Health Psychol, 35, 11, 1264-1275. Available at: LINK↩︎

  11. Brewer, N.T., DeFrank, J.T. & Gilkey, M.B. (2016) Anticipated regret and health behavior: A meta-analysis.’. Health Psychol, 35, 11, 1264-1275. Available at: LINK↩︎

  12. Wong, K.F.E. & Kwong, J.Y.Y. (2007) The role of anticipated regret in escalation of commitment.’. Journal of Applied Psychology, Available at: LINK↩︎

  13. Dijkstra, K.A. and Hong, Y.Y. (2019) The feeling of throwing good money after bad: The role of affective reaction in the sunk-cost fallacy.’, PLoS One, 14(1), p. e0209900. Available at: LINK.↩︎

  14. Blasingame, J. (2011) Beware Of The Concorde Fallacy’, Available at: LINK↩︎

  15. Martin, J. (2019) The low down on the sunk cost fallacy — Espresso Science’, Available at: LINK↩︎

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