Don’t Feel Obligated To Sink More Into Bad Choices

I am not saying anything new when I note that there are a lot of arts organizations which are incapable of taking much action due to Covid related legal restrictions or lack of resources. My assumption has been that those who are able to make plans or take action are exploring opportunities that require relatively low investment of time and resources — basically taking advantage of any option that allows them to stay nimble and muster the most leverage.

Much to my surprise, as few resources and time people have at their disposal, I have already started to witness people engaging in behavior reflective of  the sunk cost fallacy. This is the practice of feeling you have to continue down a path you recognize as a bad choice based on the fact you committed so much effort to this point. The Wikipedia article I linked to has some good examples – staying in a bad relationship because you have invested so much time and emotional energy in it, getting a membership to an expensive gym in order to force yourself to exercise, continuing a war because otherwise the sacrifice of lives would have been in vain.

One particular example given is applicable to the arts if you substitute a performance/visual arts experience in for deciding whether to stay or leave a ball game you aren’t enjoying:

The economist will suggest that, since the second option involves suffering in only one way (wasted money), while the first involves suffering in two (wasted money plus wasted time), option two is preferable. In either case, the ticket-buyer has paid the price of the ticket so that part of the decision should no longer affect the future. If the ticket-buyer regrets buying the ticket, the current decision should be based on whether they want to see the game at all, regardless of the price, just as if they were to go to a free baseball game.

Many people, however, would feel obliged to stay for the rest of the game despite not really wanting to, perhaps because they feel that doing otherwise would be wasting the money they spent on the ticket. They may feel they have passed the point of no return. Economists regard this behaviour as irrational. It is inefficient because it misallocates resources by taking irrelevant information into account.

One particular recent example I had in mind when writing this post resulted from sharing our research on livestreaming options and equipment after a successful execution with colleagues. What we had found was inexpensive and simple to use, especially in light of the fact that the cameras would communicate well with each other which made switching between camera angles very simple.

Despite our colleagues admitting that this sounded like a simpler option than the one they were working on which required more expensive and complicated equipment and software, they turned down our offer to lend them the equipment because they had put so much effort into researching their option. (I am pretty sure they hadn’t purchased everything they needed at that point.)

It should be acknowledge, there is probably no one out there that doesn’t make irrational decisions which are not in their best interest. I would bet Dan Ariely who studies irrational behavior for a living has succumbed a number of times. It isn’t terribly surprising given the times we live in that we make poor decisions based on gut or emotion, but all the more reason to pay very close attention to what is motivating your actions because there is so little margin for error.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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