sunk cost fallacy, denial, and bargaining

From, lol:

In economics, a sunk cost is any past cost that has already been paid and cannot be recovered. For example, a business may have invested a million dollars into new hardware. This money is now gone and cannot be recovered, so it shouldn’t figure into the business’s decision making process.

Or, let’s say you buy tickets to a concert. On the day of the event, you catch a cold. Even though you are sick, you decide to go to the concert because otherwise “you would have wasted your money”.

Boom! You just fell for the sunk cost fallacy.

Sure, you spent the money already. But you can’t get it back. If you aren’t going to have a good time at the concert, you only make your life worse by going.

From (also lol…):

You justify “riding a loser” or getting stuck on what you already have because you fear that walking away would mean that you wasted your time or money, you made a mistake, people will now say, “I told you so”, or you will then conclude, “I must be bad at making decisions because this one didn’t work out”. If you recognize any of this in yourself then you are suffering from commitment to sunk costs. You are trying to recover your investment by holding onto it because you cannot accept it is no longer working.

I’ve known about this concept since before my transition; I would read my dad’s economics books a lot as a teenager. I studiously avoided applying it to my transition, as far as I can remember, until last year. I didn’t connect the two until around this time (June-ish) last year, when I was describing myself as a “gender-critical transman”. I was becoming increasingly aware of the way that transition as a strategy had failed to make me feel any better. I also was realizing that, if transition was meant to be a real choice, there had to be other options. I shouldn’t experience such overwhelming distress at the entirely hypothetical concept that I could possibly ever realize it wasn’t the best choice. I started recognizing that my distress undermined the narrative I was trying desperately to talk myself back into. I feel this process was related to both to sunk cost fallacy and to both denial and bargaining as stages of grief.

It was incredibly uncomfortable, forcing myself to actually stay present with those feelings. It felt like torture. I was so used to running from feelings like that. I just couldn’t stand the dissonance anymore. The more I actually let myself talk, the more I could finally tell that what I was trying to talk myself into didn’t make any sense.


Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.

After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.

This time last year, I was spending an awful lot of time in denial, carving my way out of it gradually through engaging with a very confusing and frustrating bargaining process. It wasn’t fun at all. The process reminded me of that kid’s song… “can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it”. I didn’t know what I would find. It was so fucking scary.

From Science Translational Magazine:

But they kept on going, because after all, we’ve come so far! Spent so much time! Surely there has to be something coming that will make good on all this effort?
Not in those cases, and not in a lot of others. An economist (or a behavioral psychologist) might tell you that the way to handle a sunk-cost situation is to ignore the amount of effort, time, and money that’s been spent. As painful as it might be, those aren’t really that relevant. Treat the project as if it’s just dropped out of the sky in its current form and landed on your desk. Look at the situation as it is right now – do you want to go on, or not?

That’s pretty much what going off testosterone came down to, for me. I didn’t want to go on. I had known for two months that I wanted to stop. If I wasn’t missing any injections (I can’t remember if I was) that means I injected myself 4 times for no reason except that I couldn’t admit I was wrong to have ever taken this shit.

Considering how much I hated self-injecting, this really speaks to how mixed up I was. I never minded needles in general but doing it myself sucked and I absolutely hated it. I didn’t understand it when they trained me at all, I retained so little of the information. I was mostly guessing and going off FTM YouTube videos. I didn’t have the stomach to do an intramuscular injection quickly, I was terrified of hitting bone and had no practice with anything like this. I would put the needle in so slowly and then convince myself it “felt wrong” and make myself start over again, usually 2-10 times. Closer to the end, it always felt wrong. I’d have all these little holes from where I’d been jamming that needle. I would look at them and feel like there was some lesson I was supposed to be learning from that mess, and then I’d go distract myself with something so I’d forget all about those feelings.

That Psychology Today article from earlier also had a set of questions and tips to talk you through making decisions about sunk costs. This would have been pretty helpful to me last year.

In a recent study practicing 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation was helpful in making a decision to give up on a sunk cost. So, start by stepping back, breathe slowly, watch your breath go in and out, pay attention to your mind, and let go of judgment. Practicing slowing down your thinking is an important step in making good decisions. Once that you have slowed down your thinking you can consider the following:

• If you were deciding again to make that purchase or get into that relationship, would you make the same decision? Why not?

• If you lost that suit or dress, would you go out and buy the same one again? Why not?

• Are you sacrificing other opportunities because you are stuck with the sunk cost? For example, are you giving up the possibility of other relationships or work or studies by sticking with something that is leading nowhere? What is the opportunity cost of your commitment to a past decision?

• Could it be that the benefits of your choice decreased over time while the costs increased? If so, has the tradeoff (costs-benefits) changed?

• Did you not have all the information when you made the initial decision but now-with new information—it is clear that this is not what you expected?

• Are you trying to prove that you are right, even if it keeps you committed to the wrong decision? Is it more important to be right than to be happy?

• If you were observing someone else in the same predicament, would you recommend that they stay with their sunk costs or get out? We are usually much better at giving up sunk costs in advising someone else because we are not trying to justify our own behavior. We are talking about someone else.

• Could abandoning a sunk-cost be the sign of good decision making rather than bad decision making? All of us have made decisions that don’t work out—but a key element in good decision-making is in knowing when to quit.

• Do you admire a good decision maker who has given up on a bad investment? Knowing when to fold is the sign of good poker.

• Are you over-estimating the importance of short-term discomfort in giving up the sunk cost? Is it possible that the initial discomfort will give way to relief?

• Have you given up on sunk costs in the past? Are you glad that you got out while you could? Did anything positive follow from giving up?


3 thoughts on “sunk cost fallacy, denial, and bargaining

  1. Hello: I am not trans or detransitioning, but this post very much resonated with me. I’d never heard of “sunk cost” before reading this, but reading of this concept is definitely making me ponder an unhealthy choice I’ve been making for several years.

    I was especially motivated by your quote from another site: “Treat the project as if it’s just dropped out of the sky in its current form and landed on your desk. Look at the situation as it is right now – do you want to go on, or not?” In my own case, the answer would be not just no but he11 no. Cutting my losses won’t be easy, but I do believe will be very much worth it.

    Thank you for posting this, and best of luck with your own situation.


    • There’s a lot of different ways to have a bad time and I think obviously distinct situations can have an awful lot in common sometimes. I’m glad it’s a helpful concept!! It definitely has been meaningful to in other areas of my own life, too, with substance use or shitty jobs or whatever.


      • Hello again. I think what keeps many people continue with a failing situation will be not only the internal feelings of defeat you mentioned in your post, but the questions, including possibly some snide ones, from others. “Why are you no longer ____? You put so much into it, even when so many of us tried to talk you out of it.”

        Then there’s the advance knowledge that if the identity/career/hobby/relationship you are considering giving up is tied to the majority or entirety of your support system and social life, most or all of those people are likely to also exit one’s life. Some of those close “friends” will drop off immediately because they feel threatened or offended that you changed paths, while some will fade away gradually because you no longer see each other regularly at that activity, and/or no longer have that commonality to discuss. With some religions, members are ordered to cut off contact with departed members even if they’re relatives, whereas in other groups there’s an implicit pressure to do so. That’s going to leave a nasty burn when one doesn’t have a lot of contact with one’s bio family and/or childhood friends, as seems to be the case with a lot of trans people.

        I’ve already begun digging myself out of my own “sunk cost” scenario thanks to your initial post, and the feelings of relief are already there. Thank you again.


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