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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-Mar-14


Sunday 02-March-14

Mindfulness and sunk costs

The Sunk-Cost Effect is a pernicious little trick that our minds play on us where we get rather paranoid about the money we have spent or the effort we have expended. It is as if you have dug a hole looking for treasure, then learn that you are unlikely to find the pot of gold where you are, but still keep digging as not only do you do not want to waste the work you have already done, you would also feel rather embarrassed to have to admit you had made a mistake.

So how can we get over this? What is the best way to admit that the investment didn't work and to get out while the going is if not good, then not as bad as if we kept going.

Mindfulness is an odd kind of method that crosses over from esoteric Eastern religion into serious Western science. It typically involves a kind of meditation where you calmly focus on a single item and enter some kind of light trance state. Andrew Hafenbrack and colleagues got subjects to practice mindfulness in just fifteen minutes of guided, breathing-based meditation, and then tested them for vulnerability to the sunk-cost effect. Remarkably, their susceptibility to this common cognitive bias was significantly reduced.

The likely reason for this happening is that mindfulness pulls you into the present moment, letting go troubles of the past. When making decisions where there is a sunk cost, your focus on the present will naturally pull you away from the past. This is all good for removing negative effects, but it is not always a good idea as sometimes understanding the past can be very helpful in making wise decisions. Mindfulness is still useful for letting go of troublesome history, but it needs to be coupled with calm consideration of the lessons of the past which may lead to an every better decision.

Hafenbrack A.C., Kinias Z., & Barsade S.G. (2014). Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias. Psychological Science, 25, 2, 369-376

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