In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, James Surowiecki digs into the frustrating problem now confronting the New York Jets: They owe less-than-stellar quarterback Mark Sanchez $8,250,000 next year whether or not he plays… but he’s not playing well at all. What should they do? Stick with him and hope he improves or go with a different quarterback (Tim Tebow?) altogether?
The Jets have stumbled into a classic economic dilemma, known as the sunk-cost effect. In a purely rational world, Sanchez’s guaranteed salary would be irrelevant to the decision of whether or not to start him (since the Jets have to pay it either way). But in the real world sunk costs are hard to ignore. Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University who has spent much of his career studying the subject, explains, “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid.” This means that we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses — sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket. In business and government, the effect pushes people to throw good money after bad. The quintessential case of this is the Concorde. There was never a convincing business case for the supersonic airliner, and there were numerous attempts to kill it. But those attempts all failed, in large part because of the billions that had already been spent.
This is precisely why people are often afraid to leave their faith. They’ve invested so much time praying and reading the Bible. They’ve put so much money into their church. It would take so much work for them to explain to people why they’re no longer religious. They would have to deal with all the emotional issues of breaking ties with their church and the people in it.
It would be so much easier to just stick with a faith you’ve spent most of your life practicing than to break with it because the truth might lie somewhere else.
Daniel Dennett even talked about it in a 2009 speech when discussing clergy members who were secretly atheist but found it incredibly hard to leave their profession:
… it is very hard to say to the rest of the world, “Oh my, I have wasted the last forty years of my life.” It takes a very strong person, I think, to announce that to the world. But I think… there is, in a way, a more heartening reason why these people stay in the ministry. It’s because they are basically very good people and they are trapped, and they don’t want to hurt people, and there are a lot of people for them to hurt: their families, their friends, their associates.
It’s such a difficult thing to do — leaving one’s faith after a lifetime of being faithful — but you stand to lose so much more by sticking with it when you know it’s a lost cause.
At some point, you have to forget about Mark Sanchez.