One Meditation Session to Let the Past Go

Here’s a conundrum I’ve encountered on quite a few trips to nice restaurants: I anticipate a delicious meal, followed by some wonderful chocolate-and-ice-cream concoction I could never possibly make at home. The meal is in fact delicious, so much so that I eat quite a bit of it. My dessert arrives, and is also delicious…but after a few bites, I’m feeling full. There I am, with a decadent (and expensive) dessert in front of me, that can’t possibly go in a doggy bag, and my stomach is at war with my taste buds about whether it’s a bright idea to keep eating.

Would you keep eating the dessert, because you’ve already paid for it and it would be wasted if you didn’t, even though you aren’t going to enjoy it as much as you thought you would? If so, you have just fallen victim to the “sunk cost bias”, which you might already have heard of in the phrase “throwing good money after bad”. The sunk-cost bias is the idea that once we’ve invested in something, it’s hard to pull out of it; that would make everything we’ve invested already just a waste of time and money. The impact ranges from finishing dessert, to sticking with bad stock investments, to staying in romantic relationships long past when they’re enjoyable because of the years you’ve already given to that partner.

And the sunk cost bias may be overcome with a single 15-minute session of mindful meditation.

Sunk costs are the past, not the present, and mindfulness emphasizes the present. Sunk costs are also, ultimately, about an emotional attachment to what we have already sunk into that project (or possibly and emotional attachment to how we view ourselves), and mindfulness emphasizes letting go of emotional attachments. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that adults (Americans of all ages, who completed some surveys online) who report being more mindful on the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale also reported being more willing to abandon their dessert and otherwise resist the sunk-cost bias on the Adult Decision Making Competence scale.

But I didn’t say adopting a mindful lifestyle would help you cut your losses; I said 15 minutes of meditation would. Even if you had never meditated before.

This is what happened when 50 undergraduate students were recruited to listen to either a 15-minute meditation recording asking them to focus on their breathing, or a 15-minute free thinking recording asking them to think of whatever came to mind. Immediately afterward, they had to imagine they were a business owner who had just invested $200,000 in some machinery that could not be returned or resold, and suddenly had an offer to buy an even better machine at a fraction of the price. Would they do it? Only 44% of those whose minds had wandered were willing – that is, over half of them passed up the steal of a deal because it would invalidate the money already spent on the other machine – but 78% of those who had meditated would.

And again, when 100 undergraduates listened to the same recordings and then imagined that they had spent $9 million creating a new plane, and were almost done, when a rival produced a better plane. Would they spend the final $1 million to get their plane out the door? Only 29% of those whose mind wandered were willing to walk away from the project (saving that $1 million for something more potentially useful), but 53% of those who had meditated for 15 minutes would.

Now, these are just hypothetical situations, with only hypothetical emotional investment to overcome, which might make it much easier to choose the logical answer than when faced with a real-life sunk cost. Because these scenarios rely on the participants imagining what they would do – not actually living through an experience of having a sunk cost – it’s possible that meditation made it more difficult for them to imagine the hypothetical situation to begin with; perhaps the meditators found it easier to be logical because they hadn’t invested as much imagination in the sunk costs to begin with, not because they were able to step away from equally strong emotional investments. And the meditators didn’t step away from the sunk-cost bias entirely; they seem to be more willing to take a loss of $200,000 than $9,000,000, for example, so when the stakes are high enough even meditators may find themselves “throwing good money after bad”.

To me, though, the real shame about this study is that it doesn’t tell me what to do at the dinner table, when 15 minutes of meditation would mean that my ice cream was melted and my chocolate brownie was soggy and cold. I’ll have to hope that one minute of meditation will be enough when the sunk cost is just a few dollars.

But at the very least, one meditation session can help you resist making an emotional (rather than logical) decision in a hypothetical situation, so it might be worth taking 15 minutes to meditate before sitting down with your stock portfolio or revising a paper (or blog entry).
Hafenbrack AC, Kinias Z, & Barsade SG (2014). Debiasing the mind through meditation: mindfulness and the sunk-cost bias. Psychological Science, 25 (2), 369-376. PMID: 24317419


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