NOTE: This is one of a series of ten blog posts on cognitive biases that have applications in education.
Have you ever gone to a movie theater, only to realize that the movie you hoped would be good was actually terrible? Perhaps you left the theater, but perhaps you stayed, thinking that you already paid for the ticket so you might as well get your money’s worth. This common feeling is called the sunk cost fallacy. The reality is that whether you stay or go, the money you’ve spent is already gone. Staying is not going to get that money back. Instead you are “throwing good money after bad” by giving up your time to a movie you don’t like.
Relationships are another all too common example. Many couples reach a point where they know they are better apart than together, but separating is akin to admitting that the time spent together was not leading where you both had hoped. The reality is that the time you spent together happened whether you break up or not. Continuing to stay together just means investing more of your precious time in a relationship that’s not meant to be when you could be exploring other options.
This is especially challenging in the era of the Common Core State Standards as teachers struggle to incorporate the new with the old. Instead of evaluating each strategy or lesson on its own merit and choosing the best one, they try to keep the old and also bring in the new. This creates a situation where they can’t possibly do all of what they hope for and struggle to keep up.
One hope for addressing this fallacy begins by acknowledging its existence and realizing that it always affects what we do. Choices will need to be made using more than our sentimental preference for the familiar. Just like with the status quo bias, questions like the ones below can be asked to help begin this process:
- If you had never seen either option before, how could you tell which method would be most effective?
- Why would someone use this option?
- Why would someone use the other option?
One method for dealing with this reality is by having a class conversation to adjust student expectations. Some students feel embarrassed by having an incorrect strategy. Think about how many times you’ve seen a student turn in work that clearly shows much of the work erased so that it looked like the student got it right on the first try. Other students, instead of covering up their tracks, might stick with a strategy they’ve invested their time into long after they should have given it up. We need to talk about how changing strategies is a healthy part of the process. Take every opportunity to praise the growth you see between strategies, especially when students have invested significant time and energy in the process.
What other instances of the sunk cost fallacy are you seeing? How do you suggest we account for them?