Sunk Cost Fallacy

The last time I made chocolate chip cookies I chopped up a solid chocolate heart for the chips. When I cut into it, I got a little buzz and was reminded of my last heartbreak.  The words of a Janice Joplin song played on repeat in my head while I chopped, mixed, and baked the cookies: ” take another little piece of my heart, now Baby… Take it! take another…”

I recently read a clip from an article about a woman who was [finally] rescued from an abusive relationship. As with everything on the internet, there was a slew of comments below the article. One woman directing criticism at the girl rhetorically asked how anyone could stay with a man who hit her. SHE would walk right out as soon as that happened, she claimed.

Well, good for you, sister!

But let’s back up a bit. Chances are, the guy didn’t haul off and sock her in the eye on their first date. It is very likely that he was witty and charming, and paid her compliments.  Later, he shared something with her that helped her to understand him in a way no one else could, and she felt special and valued because of it. As time went on, he started putting her down in little ways- after she had committed some small act of selfishness (ie: humanness) so they could both blame her for the ridicule. It typically isn’t until quite some time later – after he has developed with her the relationship of codependency where she accepts responsibility for his actions more than he does- that he actually causes any visible bruising.

“Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man yeah!

And didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?

Honey, you know I did!

And each time I tell myself that I, well I think I’ve had enough,

But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.”

Sometimes loss in our past is larger in our memory than it actually was when it occurred and it keeps us from making rational decisions about our future.

I am not much of an economist, but I do know something about relationships. As little I know of the former, however, I know they have much in common. In both, we humans fall into what is known as the sunk cost fallacy. Once we have invested in something, no matter how much that investment fails us, we stick to it (sometimes investing MORE money/ourselves) because we either can’t admit failure, or we can’t stand to see what we invested “go to waste.” These  “sunk costs” are payments which can never be recovered. When we give in to our aversion to loss- or waste- we fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy. We finish a meal that tastes bad because we paid a lot of money for it. We sit in the theatre watching a terrible movie because our ticket was non-refundable. We stay in a bad relationship because we have already put our heart and soul into it and we can’t stand to walk away from that part of ourselves that we invested. We believe that if we walk away, we have nothing left to start a new investment or relationship.  Sometimes loss in our past is larger in our memory than it actually was when it occurred and it keeps us from making rational decisions about our future.


And each time I tell myself that I, well I can’t stand the pain,

But when you hold me in your arms, I’ll sing it once again.

I said come on, come on, come on, come on and take it!

Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.”

“Sunk costs” can also be what drives us to stay in relationships worth saving. The trick in any investment (or gamble) is knowing when to cut your losses and walk away, and knowing when to hold on long enough to see our investments pay off.

There is another fallacy at play here in the story of the woman in the abusive relationship.  I don’t know if there is a name for this one, but it happens when one person sees another person in an unhealthy relationship and attempts to “empower” her to leave her investment.  The woman is told by well-meaning friends that she “is beautiful, intelligent” and my personal favourite: “deserves better.” When you say these things to a person in a bad relationship,  you are using the same tactic that the other person in the relationship is using to keep her- WORDS- and they can sound just as empty…

Remember, her investment is in that other person, not you. She is not even investing in herself. She sees her loss happening when she ends the relationship, and that loss is the part of herself that she put into it.

Until she sees someone willing to take a risk and invest in her, she won’t likely be willing to cut her losses and walk away empty. You know the adage about giving a man a fish vs teaching him to fish? There is much more to it that most people miss. The man who teaches another to fish shows him that he is worth the time, effort, and the investment in fishing gear that it takes for him to learn. We show people that they have value by investing in them, not simply with words of affirmation, but with practical support such as guiding women in bad relationships toward therapy, toward jobs options, offering childcare so they can become independent from their abusers.  Sometimes we get no return on those investments, and our costs are sunk; that is why it is called a risk. But sometimes, we participate in a synergistic collaboration of investing in people that can set them up for life and for truly living.


Linda Turner
Linda Turner
Linda Turner is a writer and photographer for her blog Dancing with Scapulars, where she chronicles the journey with her children toward Heaven. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Troy State University, with studies in Human Services, Corrections, and Criminal Justice, and is presently working toward her MS in Mental Health with an emphasis on grief and bereavement. Linda is certified as an End-of-Life Doula through the University of Vermont and trained as a labor and birth doula. Linda's writing focuses on themes of healing, compassion, and moving forward through trials, drawing from her life experiences as a Catholic home-schooling single mom, as a mother of a childhood cancer survivor, a mother of a child with neuro-biological disorders, and with her ministry as a photographer with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep and eldercare. She lives in the Texas countryside in a fixer-upper farmhouse with her flocks of children, sheep, and chickens, one German Shepherd- and far too many cats.

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  1. Great article Linda and I have no doubt that many women will “get it”, and many men will somewhat recoil as to “getting it” as well. Your a writer who writes from the heart deeply which makes the reads interesting and heartfelt. Many can connect with you I am sure.