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Sunk Cost Error - The irrationality behind decision making

Here’s the scenario. Last week you thought it was a really smart manoeuvre to purchase tickets to see a new-fangled guitar band at a venue in Patong. Now it’s Friday night after a long week at work and sitting in rush-hour traffic. The concert starts in two hours, and whatever rock demon that possessed you to buy the damn ticket in the first place has left the building. And if it couldn’t get any worse, you’re south of the Chalong Circle. Great. In truth, you’re less than enamoured about the whole affair.

Culture
By David Jacklin

Saturday 1 September 2018, 09:00AM


A world of confusion Photo: ElisaRiva, Pixabay

A world of confusion Photo: ElisaRiva, Pixabay

You are caught in the dilemma best described by The Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Inevitably, most people would still decide to go. Why?

Because you’ve just fallen foul of Sunk Cost Error. Welcome to the club.

Sunk Cost Error is a form of irrational thinking, where an individual continues with an endeavour simply because they have already invested something in it, whether that be time, money or effort. What tends to happen is that this poor decision making leads to the individual increasing their investment in something that is already a lost cause. It coined the phrase, ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Professor Stuart Sutherland, a British psychologist, advised, “The willingness to change one’s mind in the light of new evidence is a sign of rationality not weakness.”

Since learning about this error in human judgement from Prof Sutherland as a young University student, armed with this ammunition through life, I’ve been a liberated man from many a tedious, time-wasting activity and have never looked back. I’ve saved myself from a plethora of painful events, but it hasn’t always been a gentle ride.

I had the great misfortune to be involved with Paramout Pictures on promoting that fat turkey of a movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They should have known if this were the best title they could come up with, and I certainly knew things were not going to go well after I saw some early rushes and later was duly invited to the premiere. In the cheap seats, I hasten to add. After one minute 30 seconds into Cate Blanchett (aka Irina Spalko – yes, really) strutting around as some kind of kitsch Soviet dominatrix and straining her way through an even more nauseous faux-Russian accent, I stood up, squeezed past my less-than-delighted superiors and departed into the ether like smoke.

On a more serious note, some of the most tragic decisions by humankind have been made due to this irrational belief system. Most notably in times of war.
Proud generals, in their safe war rooms, will literally send countless numbers of soldiers to their unnecessary deaths because the idea of a withdraw after lives had been lost is perceived as dishonouring the memory of the soldiers who had died in the failing offensive.

Let’s first consider Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who, on July 1, 1916, refused to change tactics in a futile and suicidal attempt to claim ground across ‘no man’s land’ in the Battle of the Somme. As a result of one man’s irrational defiance, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 men were killed on the very first day. The French had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army lost between 10,000–12,000 men.

And it seems that another irrationality of the human mind is a failure to learn from its mistakes.

In the final years of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, those who supported a policy of continued involvement appealed by the following consideration:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted.

Let’s all hope the current bullish rhetoric aimed at Iran doesn’t spark further fisty-cuffs we can ill afford.

Making no judgement on whether a mono- or polytheistic universe exists, I’m sure sunk cost goes some considerable way to sustaining an individual’s belief system. Once you’ve decided to have faith and invested time and ritual in worshipping an omnipotent being or two, you might be mistaken for feeling foolish to adapt your view based on your evolving knowledge and experience through life.

All in all, I think it’s safe to say the Homo sapien is an irrational beast.

We’d all do well to stop for a minute and consider our judgement in light of these revelations that, on the face of it, are little more than basic common sense.

So, don’t wear that awful dress and look like a clown in front of your friends just because your colour-blind husband bought it.

And Russia, please don’t increase budgets for the 2020 US presidential election. Vladimir, the man’s irrational at best, just let him sink.

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