How To Recognize Sunk Costs

Start with a free account to explore 20+ always-free courses and hundreds of finance templates and cheat sheets. The construction of the Sydney Opera House began in the 1950s with an initial budget of 7 million Australian pounds. However, as the project progressed, it encountered numerous design and engineering challenges that led to cost overruns and delays. Architect Jørn Utzon’s innovative design, while iconic today, posed significant technical difficulties and was much more complex to develop than initially anticipated. Alternatively, when people have invested their own money, time, or effort into something, they may develop a sense of ownership and attachment, making it harder to let go. This also relates to the difficulty of letting something go in which time, not only dollars, have been invested..

  1. We did not search for the keyword “escalation of commitment”, because our focus is exclusively on the effect of sunk costs on decision-making.
  2. When making business decisions, organizations should only consider relevant costs, which include the future costs that still needed to be incurred.
  3. By taking into consideration sunk costs when making a decision, irrational decision-making is exhibited.
  4. This often leads to inefficient resource allocation, as capital is invested based on what can no longer be changed instead of what has the most future benefit.
  5. The sunk cost fallacy would make the student believe committing to the accounting major is worth it because resources have already been spent on the decision.
  6. Fear of making the wrong decisions or fear of making decisions at all can paralyze teams, stalling them to a point where that in itself becomes a difficult problem to overcome.

The framing effect which underlies the sunk cost effect builds upon the concept of extensionality where the outcome is the same regardless of how the information is framed. This is in contradiction to the concept of intentionality which is concerned with whether the presentation of information changes the situation in question. As long as those wages are not recoverable, that salary represents an expense that has been incurred and can not be captured back by the company. Escalation of commitment is the tendency to increase investment, resources, energy, and time, even if this results in adverse outcomes or does not change the circumstances. Research and development of a new product is unlikely to generate revenue but is necessary.

Sunk costs: why they matter and how to avoid them

Table 1 provides a summary of the hypotheses, their theoretical foundation, and empirical evidence. When considering opportunity costs, it is critical to disregard sunk costs. That is because these costs have already been incurred; because there is no ability to recover these funds, the sunk cost should have no financial bearing on future decisions. The sunk cost dilemma may lead to irrational decision-making where individuals or organizations make choices that defy logic and reason. Instead of assessing the current situation objectively, they are influenced by past investments.

Sunk Cost Dilemma and Rationality

Some may say decision-makers succumbed to the sunk cost dilemma, though one could argue continue with the project was ultimately the correct move. Persisting with a project, even when it’s evident that the likelihood of success is low, because of the emotional attachment to past efforts is a downfall of the sunk cost dilemma. In the example above, the homeowner may choose to continue to invest more money or resources into a failing project, believing that doing so will eventually turn the situation around, despite clear evidence to the contrary. This is often seen in investments which loser stocks being difficult to walk away from.

People often fear that if they abandon a project or decision with substantial sunk costs, they will regret their prior investments. This fear of regret can be a powerful motivator to continue down an unproductive path. Individuals may not want to admit that they made a mistake in their earlier choices. The best way to illustrate this concept is with an example that has played out many times over the past several years. You’re a homebuilder during the bubble and you’ve started work on 20 spec homes in a small development. You’ve cleared the land, prepped the home sites and brought in power, water and sewer.

Research must strictly distinguish between the effect of temporal and monetary sunk costs. However, we argue that in progress decisions, elapsed time can be considered an investment in a project. In addition, monetary resources are not invested at one point in time but continuously as the project progresses. With regard to the influence of familiarity with economic decision-making, Garland et al. (1990) find that decision-makers familiar with the decision context did not exhibit a sunk-cost effect at all.

The firms need to carefully consider all the relevant costs while making a business decision. However, the costs which have already been incurred should not influence the decision. Only the future costs and the revenues are to be compared to take a sound decision. This difference (including the transaction cost) is calculated as the economic loss. Now the price originally paid for purchasing the machinery should not affect the future decision about the machinery.

Cheap ways to fail faster include low-fidelity prototyping (including paper prototyping), unmoderated UX and user testing, fake product testing, and guerrilla testing. Product design is only risky and expensive when it’s not guided by research, aka data and feedback. The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people make decisions based on how the information is presented (positively or negatively).

What Is the Difference Between Sunk Cost and Relevant Cost?

This is largely because it’s psychologically challenging to let go of previously invested time, effort, or financial resources even if the outcome of those investments fails to meet expectations. For example, if a firm sinks $400 million on an enterprise software installation, that cost is “sunk” because it was a one-time expense and cannot be recovered once spent. A “fixed” cost would be monthly payments made as part of a service contract or licensing deal with the company that set up the software. The upfront irretrievable payment for the installation should not be deemed a “fixed” cost, with its cost spread out over time.

For example, saving 200 people from a sinking ship of 600 is equivalent to letting 400 people drown. While these functions are framed differently, regardless of the input ‘x’, the outcome is analytically equivalent. Therefore, if a rational decision maker were to choose between these two functions, the likelihood of each function being chosen should be the same. However, a framing effect places unequal biases towards preferences that are otherwise equal.

In addition, if a company develops a product and later decides not to sell it, this investment becomes a sunk cost. The search for the mechanism(s) underlying this error is ongoing, but a functional analysis is required, too. Preferably, mechanistic explanations and functional accounts should be considered jointly. They must inform each other such that each restricts the range of conceivable solutions to the other (Vasconcelos, Fortes, & Kacelnik, 2017). For instance, how and when is delay reduction relevant to an optimal forager?

However, our non-significant results do not mean that these moderators do not affect the sunk-cost effect. Yet, within our study’s sample sizes and statistical power, we are unable to prospective sunk costs document a statistically significant impact. Besides the analysis of the main effect of sunk costs on decision-making, we further elaborate on different moderators of the effect.

Yet we find that effect sizes deviate in reaction to our hypothesized moderators as well as for different sample and research design characteristics. Next, we discuss the findings with respect to the underlying decision situation, explicate the managerial consequences, provide topics for further research, and, finally, discuss the study’s limitations. The current research strives to fill this gap by presenting the results of a meta-analytic review on the influence of possible moderators on the effect of monetary sunk costs. Although we expect the influence of sunk costs to vary between utilization and progress decisions, we also argue that the moderators differ in their impact on the effect.

Sunk cost fallacy

Sunk costs are excluded from future business decisions because they will remain the same regardless of the outcome of a decision. In conclusion, understanding the concepts of sunk costs and opportunity costs is crucial for maximizing your decision-making potential. Sunk costs are expenses that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered, while opportunity costs are the potential benefits sacrificed when choosing one alternative over another. By understanding and recognizing sunk costs, individuals and organizations can break free from the sunk cost fallacy.

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