If her doubts had started on her wedding day, I probably would have called them cold feet.
But they didn’t.
She started wanting to back out a full six months before the wedding.
“This sounds really serious,” I’d tell her. “What are you going to do?”
“What can I do?” she’d say.
“A bunch of things. Call the wedding off and just date for a while. Break things off. At the very least, you could tell him how you’re feeling. Talk it out with him. See what he wants to do.”
“No, I can’t,” she’d say, clearly horrified.
“Well, why not?”
“Everything’s paid for,” she’d say. A lot of it non-refundable. Or a situation where she’d lose a healthy deposit.
“But you’re so unhappy,” I’d say.
“I guess,” she’d say. “But this is just cold feet, right? Everyone gets cold feet, right? This is normal.”
I’d grimace. I wouldn’t respond. Because I knew it was mostly herself she was trying to convince.
We had basically this same conversation at least four times. And from talking to our other friends, it became evident that I wasn’t the only one she was talking to about this.
A bunch of us commiserated grimly at the wedding that it was tougher to have a good time at the festivities knowing how conflicted she’d been going into them.
But she smiled broadly for the pictures. And for the day they looked like the perfect couple.
A year later, however, she posted a Facebook status announcing their divorce.
Sunk Costs, In For a Penny, In For a Pound
My friend had fallen prey to the sunk cost fallacy, as many of us do. Instead of considering a decision rationally in terms of its likely future effects, it becomes easier for us to stick to an inadvisable course of action if we’ve already invested a lot into this. That investment can be literally money — but it can also involve the investment of non-monentary resources like time or energy.
So my friend was more likely to go ahead with an expensive wedding to a person she had doubts about marrying than she would have been if she didn’t have so much time, money, and energy invested into the situation.
And it’s inherently harder to give up on a relationship that you’ve been part of for years than it is to leave one you’ve only just started.
Tougher to switch from a major you hate to one that you’d like better when you’re in year four of the program than to do so in your first semester.
Harder to give up on a business that you’ve poured huge amounts of money into to no avail than to discard one that you’ve put very little into.
There’s a question I like to ask myself when I’m trying to figure out whether or not to continue a course of action that doesn’t seem to be working out: Is this really a good idea to keep doing this? Or am I clinging to this because of sunk costs? Should I try something different?
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.