In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost
is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs (also known as retrospective
costs) are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs
, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken. Both retrospective and prospective costs may be either fixed (continuous
for as long as the business is in operation and unaffected by output volume) or variable
(dependent on volume) costs. However, many economists consider it a mistake
to classify sunk costs as "fixed" or "variable." For example, if a firm sinks $400 million on an enterprise software installation
, that cost is "sunk" because it was a one-time expense and cannot be recovered once spent. A "fixed" cost would be monthly payments made as part of a service contract
or licensing deal with the company that set up the software. The upfront irretrievable payment for the installation should not
be deemed a "fixed" cost, with its cost spread out over time. Sunk costs should be kept separate. The "variable costs" for this project might include data centre power usage, etc.
In traditional microeconomic theory, only prospective (future) costs are relevant to an investment decision. Traditional economics proposes that economic actors should not let
sunk costs influence their decisions. Doing so would not be rationally assessing a decision exclusively on its own merits
. Alternatively, a decision-maker might make rational
decisions according to their own incentives, outside of efficiency or profitability
. This is considered to be an incentive problem
and is distinct from a sunk cost problem.
Evidence from behavioral economics
suggests this theory fails to predict real-world behavior. Sunk costs do, in fact, influence actors' decisions because humans are prone to loss aversion and framing effects. In light of such cognitive
quirks, it is unsurprising that people frequently fail
to behave in ways that economists deem "rational".
Sunk costs should not affect the rational decision-maker's best choice. However, until a decision-maker irreversibly commits resources, the prospective cost is an avoidable future cost and is properly included in any decision-making processes. For example, if one is considering preordering movie tickets, but has not actually purchased them yet, the cost remains avoidable. If the price of the tickets rises to an amount that requires him to pay more than the value he places on them, he should figure the change in prospective cost into the decision-making and re-evaluate his decision.