Meditation May Help Us Cut Our Losses

There are certain things that are notoriously hard for us to do: Leaving the theater halfway through a terrible movie, deciding to quit a craft project that doesn’t look like it ought to, pushing away a less-than-exciting home-cooked meal.

We have a hard time doing these things thanks to what researchers call the “sunk cost” bias: We feel compelled to continue with something just because we’ve already invested money, time, and/or effort into it.

In these cases, we aren’t rewarded for our perseverance — the movie will still be bad, the craft project will still be sad-looking, and the food will still taste bland. And yet, the idea of stopping and diverting our energies toward something else still vexes us.

Researchers Andrew Hafenbrack of INSEAD and colleagues wondered whether this cognitive bias might be mitigated through mindfulness meditation, which is aimed at maintaining focus on the present moment.

From an initial study they knew that adults who scored higher on trait mindfulness were better at resisting the sunk cost bias.

But can practicing mindfulness actually improve our ability to cut our losses? The researchers set out to answer the question in several lab-based studies with undergraduate students.

Some students listened to a 15-minute recording that led them through mindfulness meditation exercises, while others listened to a 15-minute recording that instructed them to think of whatever came to mind (a mind-wandering control group).

After listening to the recording, all of the students were asked to imagine they were business owners who had just purchased an expensive printing press. Would they spend another $10,000 to buy a new computerized press that would significantly improve company efficiency?

More than three quarters of the participants who had listened to the mindfulness recording — 78% — opted to buy the new press, resisting the sunk cost bias. By contrast, less than half of the participants in the control group — 44% — were able to do so.

In another study, participants had to decide whether they would abandon the development of a new plane after a rival team created a similar plane that had better performance and lower cost.

Again, the results showed that students who had practiced mindfulness were better at cutting their losses.

A final study suggests that mindfulness meditation helps us to resist the sunk cost bias by increasing focus on the present and decreasing negative affect.

“Our studies show that in addition to having the previously documented benefits on subjective well-being, mindfulness improves decision making through increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias,” Hafenbrack and colleagues write.

So, the next time you have to make an important decision, you might want to consider squeezing in a little meditation time first.
Hafenbrack, A.C., Kinias, Z., & Barsade, S.G. (2013). Debiasing the mind through meditation: Mindfulness and the sunk-cost bias. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613503853


Would we call it “practicing” mindfulness if the subjects are listening to a 15 minute tape? I mean, was there any protocol before they played the tape to see how the students would respond without exposure to the concept of mindfulness? It seems questionable that such limited exposure could make such a big impression.

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