A few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI announced he was resigning. His decision shocked the world, because popes don’t usually step down. And that got me thinking about the decision to walk away from things you have committed to in the past.
We live in a culture that promotes persistence. Phrases like “Winners never quit, and quitters never win” dominate our public discussion. So, is that true? Should you really continue to pour effort into situations, even when they seem hopeless? Should you stay in a relationship, just because it has gone on for a long time? Should you hold onto your job, just because of the amount of time you have been in it already?
Economists call the amount of time, money and effort that you have put into something in the past a “sunk cost.” That is, that time, money and effort is gone and you can’t get it back. So, economists argue that you should make decisions about whether to continue with something based only on whether a continued investment would lead to success and not based on the past.
Here’s a simple example. Imagine you hear about a great play at a local theater. You stand on line at the box office for an hour and pay a lot of money for good seats. You get to the show and the first act is horrible. The script is dull. The actors are lifeless. The jokes fall flat. Should you leave the show at intermission?
Many people will decide to stay to see the second act. They feel like if they leave at intermission, they will have wasted the time and money they spent.
But imagine that you were at the same play, only the tickets had been given to you the day before by a friend who had a conflict with the date and couldn’t go. Now you have less invested in staying, and you feel much more willing to leave.
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