Sunk costs: persisting at tasks already invested in

sunk costs

If you have ever stayed in a relationship too long or kept working on a project that was going nowhere, you’re not alone. People are generally loath to give up on something they have already dedicated time and effort to. It is called the “sunk costs” occurrence, where the more resources we sink to an endeavor, the likelier we are to keep –even if we feel it is futile.

But why do we engage in this potentially self-defeating behavior?

Georgia State researchers think two variables can play a role. First, It may be a profound, evolutionary ancient mechanism that helps us balance general cost and benefit. Second, it could possibly be influenced by doubt about the result (you can’t, it might work out, so why don’t you keep trying?)

Julia Watzek, a recent Georgia State University Ph.D. recipient, and her graduate advisor Professor Sarah F. Brosnan have proven both capuchin monkeys and rhesus macaques are vulnerable to the same behavior and that it occurs more often when the monkeys are uncertain about the result. Their new analysis, “Capuchin and rhesus monkeys show sunk cost effects in a psychomotor task,” was in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

The monkeys are housed at the university’s Language Research Center, where they have indoor and outdoor areas to live and perform in, and take part in entirely voluntary and noninvasive cognitive and behavioral study, said Brosnan, who’s affiliated with the Department of Psychology and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. In fact, she’s worked with a number of those monkeys for over twenty five years. “They’re like my second set of kids,” she said.

In the analysis, 26 capuchin monkeys and 7 rhesus macaques must play a simple video game where they managed a joystick, and they had to move a cursor onto a moving goal and keep it there while the goal kept moving. If they had been successful, they heard that a “whoop” sound that indicated success and got a treat. If their cursor lost contact with all the moving goal, they did not receive a benefit and a brand new round started. After being trained, the experiment tested them rounds of either 1, 3 or 7 seconds. “Monkeys have really quick reaction times on these games,” said Brosnan, “so one second to them is actually a long time.”

In reality, Watzek stated, “Most rounds lasted only 1 second. So if you didn’t get a reward after that, it was actually better to quit and start a new round. That would likely get you a treat sooner than if you had kept going.”

The researchers discovered that both species of monkeys demonstrated sunk cost effects. “They persisted 5 to 7 times longer than was optimal,” said Brosnan, “and the longer they had already tried, the more likely they were to complete the entire task.”

Uncertainty played a big role, because when the monkeys obtained a sign that additional work was required, they were susceptible to sunk cost behavior, even though they still did demonstrate it.

Studying this phenomenon in animals “teaches us something about how their minds work, in addition to our very own,” Watzek explained.

This is essential for many reasons, Brosnan said. First, it suggests that this behavior is probably driven by development and profoundly embedded across species.

“The epitome of the sunk cost is I’ve invested so much in this, I’m just going to keep going,” Brosnan said. And there may be benefits to this. “Sometimes, you need to have patience,” she said. That helps when you’re foraging for food, hunting prey, waiting for eggs to hatch, seeking a mate, or building a nest or enclosure.

Secondly, it reveals that human capabilities such as rationalization, or human concerns such as not giving up on something we’ve publicly committed to, are likely not the main drivers of this sunk cost phenomenon.

And third, it reminds us that there is sometimes a good reason to give up.

“We’re predisposed to keep trying,” Brosnan said. “And when we find ourselves sticking with things, we should also be a little reflective. Do I have a good reason to keep trying? Or should I leave with no reward, because it will save me more in the long run? That’s really hard to do. But hopefully we can use our cognitive abilities to help us overcome the emotional heartache of occasional sunk costs.”

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