Love, laundry and the ‘sunk-cost’ fallacy.

Posted by: on Oct 25, 2013 | No Comments

Last week, someone in my house put my favourite dress and scarf in the washing machine. With the twist of a dial, five hundred quid’s worth of cashmere was reduced to a couple of baby-sized pieces of fuzzy-felt. Despite a round-robbin email to all persons married, hired, or given birth to in recent memory, no-one owned up. Its probably just as well. Though there have been several other textile related incidents this year,  I have put far too much time and effort into setting up my meager domestic support system to contemplate disrupting it over someone accidentally putting wool in a hot wash.

I realize that I may be ‘over a barrel’, so to speak, but when you invest a lot of your energy in anything; an employee, a job, a project, a diet, a lover, or even an argument, it can be difficult to know when to admit failure and walk away.  This psychological bias is known as the “sunk-cost fallacy”. It describes how, rather than accepting that something is a lost cause, we battle on hoping that the project will work, or the person will change, or the argument will be resolved, when what we should really do is throw in the towel and change course.

We do this in relationships too. I know a woman who was hit by the certain realization that she did not love her husband-to-be two months before she was due to be married. By then, she had spent almost a year planning the big day and she knew that they wouldn’t be able to recoup the cost of the wedding or the honeymoon, so she went ahead with it anyway. The marriage lasted eighteen months. In contrast, when I married for the first time I had only known the guy for seven weeks but the registry office ceremony only cost thirty-five quid and I figured I had nothing to lose.

Big mistake. I spectacularly failed to factor in the emotional weight attached to such an official declaration. By the time I had been comprehensively lectured by well-intentioned family and friends who assured me it wouldn’t last a year, I was so defensive of my position that I became even more determined to make the relationship work. Fifteen years and three kids later I finally stopped proving a point and filed for divorce, but I don’t look back and see my investment in that marriage as a ‘sunk cost’. Far from it. If anything, it reminds me of the value of the institution of marriage as a vehicle for raising children.

Research shows that compared to couples who are married, couples who are cohabiting are around three times more likely to have split-up by the time their child is aged 5 (Institute for Fiscal Studies 2010).  Marriage doesn’t make people better parents. In fact much of the difference in relationship stability between married and cohabiting parents is due to differences in the level of education, whether a child is planned or unplanned, or the socio-economic status of the family. However, marriage makes a very public statement about the expected permanence of a relationship and like any prediction, this investment can be partially self-fulfilling. Any couple who is prepared to make such an optimistic forecast for their relationship is likely to work harder to live up to their own expectations and as the marriage progresses, the arrival of children and the escalation of sunk costs conspire to make it more difficult to break the relationship down. Which is, of course, a very good thing for couples, and for kids, but potentially lousy for laundry.

Suzi Godson

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