The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Fitness

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a double edged sword in when it comes to an individuals commitment towards their fitness pursuits. Before exploring that duality lets first explore what the Sunk Cost Fallacy is so we can get everyone on the same page. After that, we’ll explore the implications for an individual’s decision-making process surrounding their personal fitness habits.

The idea of sunk cost is fairly simple. Sunk cost is the time, money, energy, commitment, or any sort of physical or non-physical resource that has gone towards something. It is a past cost that can no longer be recovered. For example, let’s say that a student enters a PhD program and after a year in decides to drop out. The resources that went into that year of doctoral work is now sunk cost because that canidate dedicated time and money towards a degree yet presumably didn’t benifit 2

The Sunk Cost Fallacy comes into play when our decision-making process is impacted by the idea that that year of doctoral work would be a loss and that the student weighs this into his or her decision-making of staying in the program or dropping out. The fallacy is rooted in the idea that loss aversion impacts our decisions. That we do things simply because we’ve invested in them and that if we hadn’t invested in them we wouldn’t be doing them.

Lets now explore some interesting  positive and negative implications that this has in the fitness realm.

First, the positive. It is human nature to weigh short-term satisfaction over long-term satisfaction. We save less and eat too much sugar in order to satisfy our immediate gratification despite our intuitive knowledge that in the long-run the likelihood that our wellbeing is greater if we regulate those things.  We often have to contend with our very nature to establish healthy habits. This creates a high barrier to entry to get individuals to establish long-term lifestyle habits around exercise and nutrition that positively affect a person’s functional longevity.

As people breach that high barrier and begin to establish habits they will begin to self-identify with an exercise/nutrition modality. They become runners, cyclists, bodybuilders, crossfitters, yogis, powerlifters, strict paleo, strict zone, strict IIFYM, and so on and so forth. They learn the ropes, build community, establish the habits, and reap the health benefits that come from the initiation and practice.

In other words, they invest on a multitude of levels towards the track they went for. How the Sunk Cost Fallacy fits into this is that it is a major contributing factor to keeping those habits going because they are invested . This investment overwhelms short-term satisfaction. They go to the gym after work despite being tired. Their co-workers know they are trying to loose weight or get stronger so they keep going. They avoid certain foods because it contends with their investment in their pursuit. In essence, they continue to forge on towards their goals because if not they would miss out on the investment that was already put in.

In this case, the Sunk Cost Fallacy is a contributing factor to decreasing attrition rates for people working towards fitness oriented goals. This is a very good thing.

Now, the negative. Over-time, our needs change and it often behooves us to change our exercise/nutrition habits based off of our current state. For example, let’s say a George started doing long-distance running at age 35. Over the course of 10 years, George lost his initial weight he wanted to get rid of and now self-identifies as a marathon runner and does multiple races a year. Gradually George is succumbing to overuse injuries due to having run hundreds of thousands of miles on pavement over the last decade. Yet he continues down this path because of his investment.

But George is a marathon runner. This is who is. He has established habits that worked for him in the past. He enjoys it because he’s good at it. He has running buddies. His family and co-workers know that this is who he is.

Yes, George is in pain. He knows that what he is doing is taking a toll on his body and over the years it will continue to get worse and he would be better off switching to a different exercise modality. Yet he continues on because doing so he would have lost much of what he put in.

In this case, the Sunk Cost Fallacy in George’s situation likely a detriment to his health. 

So there you have it. The Sunk Cost Fallacy and its double edge sword on how it impacts our decision-making process in regards to how you decide what wellness habits you decide to pursue.