We’ve all made irrational decisions because of sunk costs. Perhaps we’re three years into a degree before realizing we want to pursue an entirely different career. Maybe we’ve invested $50,000 into a renovation before discovering it would have been better to sell and move to a new home.
Or maybe we’ve supported a political party or a specific candidate so long and faced so much opposition for it that we can’t admit we were wrong.
We mustn’t let sunk costs sink us.
Those of us wondering how our friends and family can be QAnon followers or still believe the pandemic is a hoax need to understand the psychological trauma someone must willingly accept to change their mind about something so monumental.
But we have a choice. We can continue to waste more time, more money, more life…or we can try to salvage what’s left. We must not let sunk costs sink us.
So let’s try to feel some empathy.
Perhaps we ourselves put twelve years into a marriage we realized was doomed after six, because we’d worked so hard already, had a child, had developed relationships with our spouse’s friends and family. Maybe if we work a bit harder, we think, hang on a little longer, things will still work out.
And then, after years of additional grief, we finally face reality and file for divorce. The delay, of course, has only made things worse. Now we have two children who will be affected. Now we’re risking even deeper relationships with friends and family. And we’re older, less “marketable” to find love elsewhere, more damaged emotionally from the additional years of unhappiness.
We’re embarrassed we allowed ourselves to be miserable for so long. We feel stupid.
Many white Americans have invested so much into believing a glorified history of the United States that we simply can’t face listening to the reality of racial abuse. We’re worried that doing so makes us responsible for things others have done. We’re leery it will make us responsible to change our own behavior.
We are, quite simply, afraid.
So we let that sunk cost keep us from making life better not only for others but for ourselves as well.
Perhaps we’ve spent years as a three-car family, flown across the country, even to Europe or Asia, on vacation. We’ve invested both financially and emotionally into believing the climate crisis isn’t real. Accepting the truth now means not only that we need to make drastic adjustments to our lifestyles but also that we accept our role in making the problem worse because we chose not to believe the evidence.
That’s a blow almost no ego can sustain.
In the movie Awakenings, the true story of a physician who awakens survivors of a sleeping sickness epidemic, we see patients who became ill in their youth finally returning to life in their fifties and sixties. At first, they’re out dancing and enjoying life again. Everything looks great. What a success story.
Then a hospital staff member cheerfully asks someone how they feel about this miracle.
“I feel cheated,” the man says angrily. He’d fallen asleep at seventeen and now he’s an old man.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hasidic Jews and Mormons and others sometimes decide late in life that the religion they’ve dedicated their lives to isn’t “true.” On reddit recently, a woman recounted the dismay she felt upon realizing she’d paid half a million dollars in tithing over a lifetime to an organization she no longer believed in. She was sixty-five, finally retired, but instead of freedom felt only the loss of “the best years of her life.”
If we’ve spent our lives as Republicans, or Democrats, or as apolitical non-voters, but now think we made a mistake; if we spent the last five years supporting someone we believed wholeheartedly and now realize was lying; if we’ve lost friends and family because we believed conspiracy theories, then, consciously or not, we’re likely afraid of facing the truth.
Who wouldn’t be?
We know it means admitting we were wrong, admitting we were, on some level, the “bad guy.” Or, at best, a fool, which isn’t much easier to face.
We all make bad decisions at some point in our lives.
But we have a choice. We can continue to waste more time, more money, more life…or we can try to salvage what’s left.
As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
We must not let sunk costs sink us.