Category: Cognitive Bias

Sunken Cost and Coffee Shops

My new office isn’t ready yet.

So I decided to work at the library. But this morning when I arrived at 9:30, the library was closed, until noon. The rational thing to do would have been to turn around and walk back 2 blocks to the coffee shop I knew was open, I’d worked at before, and which is a pleasant place to work. But…

A sunken cost is the time, money, or other resources you have already invested in something, whether or not that something ends up working out. The 20 minutes I had already spent walking from our new apartment to the library were, for me, a sunken cost. And instead of turning around—which would have made me feel that those last 2 blocks were for naught—I kept going.

photo by C. E. Cameron

Given that I fell victim to the cognitive bias known as “sunken cost”…

I walked for another 20 minutes, expecting at every moment to see another coffee shop at the next block. I passed a coffee and tea supply store, and almost a dozen restaurants and cafes, which were, like the library, CLOSED. Finally I spotted a corner shop with COFFEE CULTURE in large letters. I felt vindicated. My walk—totaling 40 minutes, double my initial “investment” had paid off.

Then, as I approached the door, I squinted, hoping that the dark interior and white postings on the front door were simply part of the ambiance.

No chance. The white postings were eviction notices, dated more than a month ago.

 It took a while, but I finally did the rational thing:

I turned around, and went back to the original spot, Spot Coffee. Moral of the story? I’m not actually sure. If I were a rational economist, I’d say “should have turned around at the library.” But I’m in a new place, still getting to know the Elmwood Village. Maybe, like ants exploring for food, my additional walk would have revealed the perfect place to work. Maybe next time, it will. (Perhaps by now you’ve figured out I wasn’t using a SmartPhone). But maybe, like ants exploring for food, much of my time ended up wasted.

Oh well. Being rational isn’t one of my life goals anyway. Awareness and looking at the scenery is more my library-passing, coffee-shop seeking, stop-and-smell-the-flowers speed.