Donald Trump made news in 2019 when he suggested it might be time to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. U.S. military forces had been there about 18 years. That’s an easy number for me to remember because my daughter was 18 years old. She was born in 2001. Then 9-11 happened, and I’m kind of glad she wasn’t old enough to remember it.
Going into Afghanistan seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan and were harboring Al-Qaeda. It seemed the only people who opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan were the kind you can count on to oppose virtually any U.S. military action (far left with a sprinkle of libertarian types). In the wake of the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime, W’s approval rating was high even among Democrats.
Of course, that didn’t last. Opinions on the Iraq war were more divided, and today it seems there is a broad consensus that Iraq was a mistake. Not only that, people are even questioning whether it makes sense to stay in Afghanistan. Eighteen years later the Al-Qaeda threat looks significantly diminished, yet Afghanistan seems like an endless quagmire.
More traditional hawks tend to reject this Afghanistan revisionism. If we leave Afghanistan now, aren’t we admitting that going in to get Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda was a mistake? After all the dollars spent and American lives lost, how can we just give up?
This, of course, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s primarily a principle of economics, but it applies in a wide range of scenarios. The idea is that in deciding whether to spend additional money or resources on a project that is in progress, a rational actor should consider whether the future benefits are likely to outweigh the future costs. It is a fallacy to consider costs incurred in the past—the “sunk” costs—because there is nothing you can do to change them.
In other words, it’s a fallacy to continue pursuing a venture that is not going to be profitable on the ground that you’ve already invested time and money in it.
Sound familiar, litigators? If you have any experience with litigation, you have probably experienced the sunk-costs fallacy firsthand. Let’s consider an example from my favorite hypothetical lawsuit, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Litigation
Dawn Davis was the top sales person at Paula Payne Windows, but she became disgruntled when her business development budget was cut and she couldn’t do her annual trip to Vegas with her best customers. So she accepted a job offer from Paula Payne’s fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows.
Then Paula Payne sued Dawn, claiming breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets. But the judge thought the non-compete was too broad and denied Paula Payne’s motion for a temporary injunction.
Six months later, Paula Payne had obtained no relief and spent over $50,000 on legal fees. Documents produced by Real Cheap showed that Dawn had brought several customers to Real Cheap, generating about $100,000 in revenue. Paula Payne’s CFO estimated that Paula Payne would have made about $20,000 in profit on those sales if the customers had stayed with Paula Payne.
“Paula, we’ve got to make a decision,” the company’s lawyer said to the founder and CEO. “Our trial date is only six months away,” he said, “and we need to hire a CPA as a damages expert.” And here’s the kicker: “I know a good one we can use, but he’ll need a deposit of $15,000.”
Paula grimaced. “Ok, and how much are your fees going to be from now through the trial?” she asked. “Hard to say,” her lawyer said, “but you’re looking at paying us at least another $50,000.” “So you may want to think about settling,” he said, “especially considering your damages may be less than $50,000.” He added that Real Cheap’s lawyer already indicated Real Cheap would be willing to do a walk-away settlement.
“No way,” Paula shot back. “What was the point of suing Dawn and Real Cheap and paying you $50,000 if I’m just going to quit now?”
And there it is. The Sunk Cost Fallacy. A rational business person would coldly look at the cost of going forward (around $65,000), the potential benefit (let’s assume a recovery of around $50,000), and the chance of success. Even assuming a better than even chance of success, it looks like the smart move for Paula Payne would be to settle for whatever she can get, or even to walk away.
The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy
But of course real people—even sophisticated business people—don’t think like that. It doesn’t feel right to spend $50,000 on a project and then decide to shut it down. It’s easy to understand that emotion.
If want to put it in economic terms, you could say there is a psychological cost to giving up on a venture when you have already invested your time, money, and energy in it. The mental pain that Paula will feel if she quits is real, and in theory you could assign a dollar value to it. Isn’t that similar to what juries do when they consider “mental anguish” damages?
When you take that pain into account, then maybe the economic critique of the Sunk Cost Fallacy is itself a fallacy. The economic problem with the critique is that it doesn’t take all of the relevant costs into account.
Putting aside economics, there’s a more practical problem for Paula Payne’s lawyer. If he approaches the issue from purely an economic standpoint, he’s going to under-appreciate the importance of Paula’s emotions, and he won’t have a happy client. In other words, presenting the issue to Paula as purely dollars and cents doesn’t reflect high “emotional intelligence.”
It turns out there is a second principle at play: the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. It’s a fallacy to think that a client who has sunk costs should make decisions based purely on a rational assessment of the future economic costs and benefits. After all, Paula’s not a robot. In the words of Bob Schneider, she’s only blood and bones.
The First Law of Holes
Let’s assume that Paula Payne’s lawyer gets that. He has high emotional intelligence and is aware of the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. That means he will not be too quick to dismiss Paula’s objection that she has already spent $50,000 on the lawsuit. He will understand that for Paula, simply giving up is not an option, even if walking away makes economic sense. He will “feel her pain.”
So, full speed ahead! Forget the fact that Paula Payne may have to spend over $65,000 on lawyer and expert fees to go to trial on a $40,000 lost profits claim. At least she’ll be able to look herself in the mirror and know she stood up for the rights of her company. Right?
Maybe. But here’s the problem. Chances are, the case is still going to settle. I’ve taken a non-compete case to trial before, but it’s rare. A trial of any kind of case is rare. Nine times out of ten (or more), it’s just a question of when the case settles, and for how much.
Let’s assume that six months in, Paula Payne Windows decides to keep moving forward. Then she spends another $30,000 on legal fees over the next three months. At that point, Real Cheap offers $20,000 to settle the case. Now Paula has an even more difficult decision. Settling is going to be even more painful because now she’s spent over $80,000.
This brings us to a third principle: the First Law of Holes. The First Law of Holes says when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
Yes, the pain of walking away after spending a lot of money is real. But that pain is only going to increase after you’ve spent even more money. In our hypothetical, Paula would have been better off—and probably felt better about the outcome—if she had stopped digging at the six-month mark.
So we’ve come full circle. In a sense, the First Law of Holes is just a version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. But the First Law of Holes brings home the crucial point that sunk costs keep increasing. Better to cut your losses now than later.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. was wrong to go into Afghanistan, or that Paula Payne made a mistake when she decided to sue Dawn Davis and Real Cheap Windows. She understandably felt she had to do something to protect her company. And it is not to say that business people should never press forward with a lawsuit. Then I would be out of a job.
But whether we’re dealing with litigation, foreign policy, or day-to-day business decisions, we should be self-aware enough to recognize when the Sunk Cost Fallacy is tugging at our heart strings. Even if it’s just human nature, we should resist that pull. And sometimes the right decision will be to stop digging.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.