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Sunk Cost Fallacy

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

You know feeling all too well; you spend a considerable amount of time doing something, only to discover that you’ve been doing it wrong. You’ve invested time and energy and money on a project, and then suddenly it all comes crashing down; instead of reaching your goal, it is now clearly beyond reach. What you do next, though, will determine where you end up.


You can dig your heels in and keep at it, refusing to change your plan, sticking with the original objective; or you can cut your losses, listen to the experts, and start over with a different tactic.


Most people will unfortunately go with the former: we’ll ignore the reality facing us that we aren't headed in the right direction, we’ll deny that things aren’t going well, and hope against hope that persevering along the ill-advised path will still get us to our destination. This attitude is known as the “sunk cost fallacy” — I’ve already sunk so much into this project, turning around and starting over hurts my ego and thus I will convince myself to keep going, despite logic clearly dictating otherwise.


We experience this with significant issues in life, such as business ventures that aren’t going well but because of our investment in the project we refuse to back down before we lose even more; and also in simpler areas, such as forcing ourselves to finish everything we ordered at the restaurant because we’ve already paid for the meal.


It takes a certain level of maturity and instinct to recognize that sometimes keeping at something because of past investment simply isn’t worth it. Just because you’ve been doing something a certain way all along shouldn’t dictate how your future plays out. Sometimes acknowledging that the past was wrong and making an about face is the most progressive thing a person can do.


The beauty of life is that as long as you’re still living you have a chance to turn things around. You may have been headed down the wrong path all your life, but at a moment's notice you can decide to switch gears and start over. Sure, it’s tempting to just keep going and convince yourself that it’s too late to change, but once you manage to overcome that feeling, a whole new world of possibilities opens up for you.


We see this in the story of the sons of Korach. Their father was infamous for leading a rebellion against the leadership of Moses, and they were originally part of that rebellion. So when the earth opened up and swallowed Korach and his followers, his sons were among those that suffered this horrible fate of being buried alive. But then the Torah tells us that Korach’s sons didn’t actually die at that time. In fact, as the earth was starting to rumble and they and their families began disappearing beneath the earth’s surface, they recognized the error of their ways and experienced a feeling of true remorse, of teshuvah.


So much so, that as a result of their teshuvah, they were saved and eventually returned to the surface and lived productive Jewish lives for the remainder of their days. To the point that one of Korach’s sons was the ancestor of the great Jewish leader several generations later, the Prophet Samuel.


Imagine that; these individuals were certainly deserving of the harsh fate that befell their families and co-rebels. But as a result of their change of heart in what seemed to be their final moments, they were given a chance to right their ways. While going down with the proverbial ship, they realized that the truth lies in the Torah that Moses taught them, and they no longer attempted to justify their actions.


They put the past behind them and instead forged a new path, one that didn’t allow them to get dragged down by their sunken rebellion. They started over from scratch, and had a very bright future.

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