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The Fallacy of Sunk Cost

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

My career has long been spent identifying the fallacy of sunk cost. This concept, coined in the mid 80s by two economists, explains how we continue a certain behavior because of previously invested time and resources. How it frequently shows up in my office (and now in my Zoom room) is prospective students who want to get a degree to advance in a career they aren't even sure they like. Or current students continuing to take courses in a concentration they have long lost interest in. Or coaching clients struggling to invest in an employee who has repeatedly (and sometimes aggressively) shown they are not a good fit.

I'm not immune to the fallacy myself. Sometimes I've steered harder into a relationship I'd already emotionally abandoned--my former dentist, for example. Or continued on a project because of how much time I'd already given it. I've spent too much on yarn, needles, and how-to books to give up learning to knit now!

But never have I seen such a collective upholding of the fallacy of sunk cost until the pandemic.

Let me be clear here: the pandemic has been challenging. It has created an economic collapse, increased unemployment, caused an unprecedented number of deaths, escalated the prevalence of domestic violence and mental health issues, shaken our public educational system, and fueled the political fires in a way no impeachment, sex scandal, or missing emails ever has.


That doesn't mean we must get back to the way things were. And I challenge you, with these three suggestions, to recognize the degree to which you have sunk yourself down with the costs:

Watch Your Language

You could play a drinking game during Zoom meetings in which you take a shot every time you hear someone say, "...even if it's virtual!" ("Good to see everyone...even if it's virtual";"We are excited about our upcoming event, even if it's virtual"; "Can we schedule a happy hour...even if it's virtual?") But then you'd be drunk every day by 10am and that's not good for anybody.

When people seem uncomfortable with the shift to virtual, they seem to be arguing virtual is inherently worse. But I am always curious to know: if we were in person, what would be different? Aside from me wearing pants with a zipper, I don't know what people are yearning for that they can't get from 1) seeing people's faces; 2) hearing their voices; 3) sharing space and time with them. Were these people sitting in each other's laps during meetings? Passing love notes? Picking gnats out of each other's hair?

Look, I love being in person, too (a bigger hugger you will not find), but let's not glorify its advantages because it puts what we do have--which is insanely useful technology--at an immediate disadvantage. It feels like a bride walking down the aisle and saying to her groom, "Sorry this dress isn't prettier."

Suspend Your Disbelief

For me, imagining the world as it could be--not being nostalgic for how it was--has been like looking through a kaleidoscope. I can't believe how pretty the colors became just by turning the view a little. The pandemic has me rethinking every construct we have all collectively held dear. As a parent of two children in a school district that is currently 100% virtual, I've been curious watching everyone grapple with the construct of what school is. Is it the hours the students clock? Is it the number of assignments? Is it the guidance and support of a teacher? Is it inspiring curiosity in young minds? Because my kids are getting all of that right now. And yet every day I hear my friends, our neighbors, and politicians demand to know when kids are "going back to school."

School, then, must just be a building.

Or, at the very least, it's just a mirror image of the construct of work. What a helluva opportunity to rethink both.

Don't misunderstand me - teaching our children virtually while trying to do our full-time jobs hasn't been easy. But neither was getting up at 6am, rushing them to school, working all day in a fluorescent office, picking them up late from aftercare, rushing around to activities, cooking dinner, and cramming in homework before the inevitable meltdowns at bedtime from sheer exhaustion, having only seen our children for a few hours.

All this to say, I prefer the problems we now have over the ones we traded in.

Don't Place Blame

Ah, we love to blame the pandemic. And when shut downs across the globe first started in the spring, we had every reason to. But half a year has gone by with just over 40% of the workforce operating remotely. And with research showing work is still getting done, at a certain point (and we may already be at that point) employers will have to convince their employees why they need to come back in person. And saying, "Because the pandemic is over" will no longer be enough of a reason.

Placing blame on the pandemic keeps us from recognizing how quickly people adapt and adjust. Blame keeps us from realizing that, regardless of what caused the disruption in our lives, we still have to adjust to it and thrive in it. And beyond all that, placing blame seems to carry with it the false narrative that once the cause is gone (or in this case, has a vaccine) then we can return to the way it was. But the way it was has already given up the ghost.

We all have a lot of sunk cost in the way our lives used to be. For some, that's 40-hour work weeks in an over-air-conditioned office. Kids inside a school building all day. Meetings around a conference table. Events in person. I'm not suggesting any of that is wrong. But I am suggesting that if we don't see the way it once was for what it really was, there's only one outcome.

We're all sunk.


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