Friday, September 28, 2007

the sunk cost fallacy

It's awfully hard to believe that there's no use in crying over spilt milk. All our instincts tug the other way. The more time, money, blood, sweat, or tears you've invested in something, the harder it is to walk away. When you've ordered a heaping bowl of double chocolate mint swirl, even if, after eating half, you find you're stuffed, if you don't finish the whole thing, you'll have wasted your money. When you've spent a decade in in a relationship that has now gone sour, if you split up, those years of devotion will become meaningless. When a country has lost thousands of its soldiers in what turns out to be a futile war, withdrawal would mean all those lives were sacrificed in vain.

Of course, this line of reasoning is completely irrational. What you've already invested, what economists call your "sunk costs," are irrelevant when you're trying to decide what to do next. The money, the years, the lives are already gone. You can't get them back no matter what you decide to do. You should ignore the sunk costs and weigh only present and future costs and benefits. Cut your losses. Don't throw good money after bad. Let the dead bury the dead.

But it's not easy to put this particular theory into practice. Because I've put so much time, money, and effort into the idea of having a baby, because of the losses I've suffered, it's become harder and harder to draw a line and say: this is it. The temptation is to keep going and going, not just because I want a happy ending, but also because I hate the idea that all I've done, all that's happened is pointless. While I certainly don't have to make any final decisions yet, looking ahead, I can see that as the financial and emotional costs mount, it's going to become harder to decide to stop, harder not to keep going forward no matter what. It's a vicious cycle. The more I invest, the easier it becomes to invest more. Sometimes it's not only the costs that are sunk.

26 comments:

Eva said...

Yep. It's a gamble. Only you know when to stop. I wish you well. Generally speaking, from what I've experienced and heard and read, it's well worth the effort. Generally speaking.

Magpie said...

Oh yeah - it is truly hard to stop. I feel lucky, in that the kid was the result of IVF#3. Would we have done a 4th? A 5th? More? Gone to donor egg? Surrogacy?

I know someone who did EIGHT fresh cycles and I can't remember how many frozen and then there were some donor cycles and then they adopted but kept trying. It's indeed vicious.

ms. G said...

This is an excellent post, Niobe. You really hit on something I think alot of us have wondered.

DD said...

BRAVA!

Amelie said...

"cut your losses" sounds terrible in this context. Ouch.

thailandchani said...

I know it sounds like a cliche.. and I certainly don't want to sound that way but my honest belief is that things happen when they are meant to happen ~ not a minute sooner.

Maybe the key is to stop "trying" ~ and let it happen when it happens?

This kind of thing, I guess, just can't fit into economic theories.

?

I don't know. Hope I'm not out of line here.


Peace,

~Chani
http://thailandgal.blogspot.com

Furrow said...

Very astute post. But then, all of yours are. Being where I am, it's my inclination to urge someone to keep trying, because I can't imagine not having this. But where you're standing and where I've stood are on different planets. In real life, I don't actually urge people to do anything, because I hated that, myself.

Road Blocks and Rollercoasters said...

How true! It really is like playing the lottery--every month you hope and pray that this is it and when it's not you gear up for another month.

I hope you hit that jackpot soon! As, I've often wondered where that line would be for me and when it would be drawn, but I just can't come to terms with giving up.

Lori said...

This was the most poignant thing I've read in awhile:

"...it's not only the costs that are sunk."

It's a quagmire.

slouching mom said...

Oh, niobe. I can see this. I cannot imagine stopping when there still exists possibility.

Beruriah said...

I get it. Really. But I don't know anything about resolving it.

Megan said...

My only costs are emotional, but I've asked myself if I'm willing to invest more of my dwindling supply of hope in a quest that has already left me a person I don't even recognize.
I guess the question we have to ask ourselves - whatever our circumstances - is whether we can do it ONE more time.

Waiting Amy said...

Ahh, this is such the ultimate question. Lately, I fell sunk too. Deep in the deepest depths of the ocean. Did I mention that its deep down here?

Unfortunately, we will hit a financial wall before others. So that will be that.

BasilBean said...

I know our situations are different, but your words really resonate with me. In my case it has been out of my hands in such a way that I have *had* to learn to let go and allow things to progress in their own time. It has now been a year and 8 months since we lost William and, while it looks like me and Mr. C are back on the same page once more, since I am on medication it will still be a few more months until we can even start to try again. And who knows how long it might take after that? There are no guarantees.

Kami said...

I do think the more we try the more important that end result can seem. I don't know what I would do with my life if I wasn't trying to conceive. It has been my biggest hobby (obsession) for 5 years now.

Yet, I find I am getting more and more ok with the idea of giving up. I think there comes a time when the emotional and financial reserves dry up and it feels better to quit than keep trying. Or maybe not - because I am not there yet. That line might just keep moving a step or two away from where I am at right now.

My Reality said...

It is like a drug, I crave more treatment. I don't know if I will be able to stop.

Jitters said...

Simply put...yup, I agree.

I wish I could say our decision to move on to adoption was not influenced by finances, but that is not the case. After 3 years of forking out more than we pay for our mortgage annually, we needed to know we were actually going to get something for our money this round.

Sad, but true. As I posted on DD's site, a million dollars would really make me happier.

Tash said...

Boy is it sad when one can apply my grad school experience to expanding a family, but you've hit the nail on the head. It's almost -- well hell, it is -- harder to give up than to keep going, no matter how dark the tunnel. I'm not looking forward to even starting this process of just THINKING about the "again." Ugh.

NotSoSage said...

What a striking post to happen upon for a first time, niobe. This is such a simple and yet muddled truth.

I wish you the best in facing this decision, if and when it comes. I'll be back.

Cate said...

Its all about forward velocity. You already have the energy propelling you forward which makes it easier to keep going than to expend the energy to stop. Maybe try rolling to a stop gently instead of putting on the emergency break?
An object in motion wants to stay in motion.

LAS said...

Niobe, I haven't been through what you have - so I can't even begin to say that I understand, because I don't - we have had different experiences - but I get what you are saying. It really resonates with me - I really can feel what you are getting at. I tend to believe (but absolutely hate it when people say this to me) that things happen at just the moment when they are supposed to. This of course makes me nothing but angry. But it does feel true in my life. The moment I surrender something and stop hanging on to the idea - or the expectation that something ought to be a certain way - the way I imagine it or the way I want it - the moment I let go of that - I open myself up to the possibility that perhaps something even greater and more amazing is about to happen.

M said...

oh yes, niobe, this post (as most of yours) really speaks to me.

painted maypole said...

i've often thought of this phenomenon in terms of eating, but this taking it into other realms is really interesting

LeRoy Dissing said...

I understand the logic and illogic you have posed in this post. When does a person "throw in the towel" and say "enough is enough"? Under what condition(s) does a person stop? Who/what made this an "unconditional" pursuit or is it really that? How can anyone quantify the emotional investment that self-reinforces this process?

All questions one has to ask and answer individually. However, for me it would be when the effects of the process negatively affect the relationships around me, including myself, then I would start to evaluate going on. It seems to me that jepordizing those significant relationships to the point of losing them or losing myself would make me pause and take stock of what is going on.

I can never honestly know how I would do that or even if I would since I have never been in that situation. Just an outsider's view for whatever it is worth.

missedconceptions said...

My logic is this: will I be disappointed with myself in 20 years if I stopped? When do I reach the rate of failure where my future self will be able to honestly say "I tried. It did not work. I moved on." I am not there yet. It does not sound like you are, either.

Aurelia said...

I keep coming back to this post, and wondering what to say. It's true, everything you wrote.

I hope that when you finally achieve everything you are hoping for, that it is worth the costs. I think it will be, but I'm on the other side, so it's hard to put myself back there and ask.