Ask Ariely: On Irrational Investments and Company Complaints

January 18, 2020 BY Dan Ariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

One of my credit cards bears the words “member since 1989.” The truth is that I haven’t used this card in years, even though I pay a $95 annual fee for it. But I can’t seem to bring myself to cancel it, simply because of that “member since 1989”! It feels like I would be giving up a status I’ve been building for 30 years. Why is it so hard for me to make what is clearly the rational financial decision?


You’re suffering from what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy.” To understand how this works, imagine you have spent 15 hours writing a new book, and you have 50 more hours to put in before you’re finished. Then you learn that someone else’s book on the exact same subject will be coming out next week. Should you keep working on your book for another 50 hours? Most people would say no—why spend so much time on a project that is unlikely to be successful?

But now imagine that instead of 15 hours, you have invested 1,500 hours in writing your book. In that case, would you put in another 50 hours to get it done? Now most people would say yes—if you’ve already spent 1,500 hours on something, why not put in the last 50 to finish it?

In both cases you are being asked to make the same amount of effort for the same doubtful result. But when you’ve invested a lot of time—or a lot of money—it’s hard to make the rational decision to write off your sunk cost and shift your resources to something better.
You’re facing a similar problem when it comes to your credit card. To make the decision clearer, ask yourself if you would keep paying for the card if it only said “member since 2019.” If your answer is yes, then keep it; if the answer is no, it’s clear that you are a victim of the sunk cost fallacy and you should cancel the card now, before that cost gets even bigger.


Hi Dan,

At least once a day, someone in my office sends an email to the whole company complaining about some small issue: Someone took the wrong lunch from the refrigerator, or someone drank the last of the coffee and didn’t make a new pot. I find it really annoying. Is there a way to get people to complain less?


It seems like it should be simple to convince people to be more patient and polite. But the truth is that it’s much easier to change your own attitude than it is to change the behavior of your co-workers. One approach would be to make a game out of it: Every Monday, make a prediction about how many of these complaints will come your way that week. If your prediction is correct, reward yourself with some small indulgence. That way, you can think about the complaints not just as annoyances but as a way to earn a reward.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.