The Sunk Cost Fallacy is Ruining our Mental Health

Explore how the cognitive bias of the sunk cost fallacy affects students during exam season and how taking a more holistic approach to learning can help maintain mental health.

Published: May 16, 2023  |  

High school student

Sunk Cost

As exams approach, it’s common to begin feeling the effects of the mid-year slump with ridiculous sleep schedules, piles of tests, and the ever-growing to-do-list, especially with certain teachers assigning copious amounts of homework. In simple words, it’s tough right now.

Despite it all, most of us simply can’t bring ourselves to take a break. Why is it so hard to pull yourself out of the studying loop and force yourself to breathe? It’s not even a case of having a productive mindset.

For me, it’s just the notion that I’d rather sit with a practice test in front of me, miserable and tired than admit defeat and go do something I actually enjoy. It’s the idea that if I take a break to watch TV or call a friend, I’m doing something “wrong.”

Perhaps this is just a personal experience and I’m projecting, but I’m sure many of us feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when we’re trying to relax. When I’m not studying, I’m thinking about studying. I have my study schedule perpetually open in a tab on my laptop, so much so that when I type the letter ‘s’ into my search bar, it auto-fills with the link to my study Excel sheet. Why can’t we force ourselves to turn off for a second?

It’s this idea of the sunk cost fallacy. In economics, the idea of a “sunk cost” is an investment that you cannot recover. When applied to people’s daily lives, this can come in different forms—perhaps it’s money, time, effort, energy or even something like space. These are things that in theory we could never get back. For example, let’s say you purchase a ticket to a movie, but about halfway through you realise that it’s incredibly boring and honestly, a waste of your time.

But you’ve already paid for the movie, and you’ve already spent an hour watching it—you may as well stick it out to the end, or you would have just wasted your money. Those are your sunk costs

But there’s an alternative. Although you’ve spent money on a film you do not enjoy watching—money you won’t get back—you have the option of saving time. Let’s say, you turn off the movie and go for a walk instead. In this case, you limit the amount of time you spent on the movie, but unfortunately, you’re not going to get your money back. So you think, why bother going for a walk at all? This entire concept is the sunk cost fallacy.

You may be asking, how is this at all relevant to us in our work and exams? Picture this scenario: You’re in your room, you’ve been studying for two hours, and you desperately want to take a break. But if you do, you would waste time that could have been spent preparing for your physics exam—time that you’ll never get back. And you don’t want the future you to be upset and filled with the regret of, “if only I’d studied more”. 

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that can make it difficult to make rational decisions. Essentially, the fallacy suggests that if you’ve already invested time, money, or effort into something, then it can feel like a waste to give up on it now. For example, if you’ve spent two hours studying, you might feel like taking a break would negate all the work you’ve done so far.

However, this way of thinking doesn’t make logical sense. The time you’ve spent studying is already gone, regardless of whether you take a break or keep going. The important thing is to focus on what you can do moving forward, rather than dwelling on the past.

It’s natural to feel guilty or conflicted when deciding whether to take a break or keep working. But it’s important to pause and reflect on why you’re feeling this way. Are you genuinely motivated to continue studying, or are you simply feeling pressure to keep going because of the time you’ve already invested? By taking a step back and examining your motivations, you can make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

At times, I find myself questioning why I feel guilty for taking breaks while studying. This thought process may be part of a broader conversation about mental health in education, or perhaps it’s related to the rigors of programs like the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP). When I mention having plans over the weekend, some people respond with sarcastic remarks about how nice it must be to relax and not study. 

This kind of reaction can add to the pressure that students already feel to constantly be studying and achieving academic success. It’s important to recognize that taking breaks and engaging in self-care is an essential part of maintaining mental health and academic performance. Perhaps by having more conversations about the importance of balance in education, we can shift the focus away from constant studying and toward a more holistic approach to learning.

I don’t understand why people compete to be the “worse off” person. When did a lack of sleep and stress levels become a prize in a competition? This culture is harmful and manifests itself in dangerous ways, often directing damaging attacks on people’s mental health.

The solutions to this aren’t necessarily obvious, but a good habit is to find intrinsic value in everything that you do. Stop viewing things as useless if they aren’t perfect. 

It’s important to remember that every action, no matter how small, has consequences. For example, if you go for a run and only manage to run 4 kilometers instead of your usual 5, it’s still a significant accomplishment that shouldn’t be dismissed. By acknowledging the hard work and effort you put into something, you can ease any feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

However, it’s also important to acknowledge that there is a larger conversation to be had about a system that often rewards burnout and constant productivity. By prioritizing self-care and acknowledging the value of rest and relaxation, we can begin to shift the culture around productivity and success. Ultimately, by changing our individual behavior and advocating for systemic change, we can create a more sustainable and balanced approach to work and life.

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