The sunk cost effect in pigeons and humans

J Exp Anal Behav. 2005 Jan;83(1):1-13. doi: 10.1901/jeab.2005.21-04.


The sunk cost effect is the increased tendency to persist in an endeavor once an investment of money, effort, or time has been made. To date, humans are the only animal in which this effect has been observed unambiguously. We developed a behavior-analytic model of the sunk cost effect to explore the potential for this behavior in pigeons as well as in humans. Each trial started out with a short expected ratio, but on some trials assumed a longer expected ratio part way through the trial. Subjects had the (usually preferable) option of "escaping" the trial if the longer expected ratio had come into effect in order to bring on a new trial that again had a short expected ratio. In Experiments 1 through 3, we manipulated two independent variables that we hypothesized would affect the pigeons' ability to discriminate the increase in the expected ratio within a trial: (a) the presence or absence of stimuli that signal an increase in the expected ratio, and (b) the severity of the increase in the expected ratio. We found that the pigeons were most likely to persist nonoptimally through the longer expected ratios when stimulus changes were absent and when the increase in the expected ratio was less severe. Experiment 4 employed a similar procedure with human subjects that manipulated only the severity of the increase in the expected ratio and found a result similar to that of the pigeon experiment. In Experiment 5, we tested the hypothesis that a particular history of reinforcement would induce pigeons to persist through the longer expected ratios; the results suggested instead that the history of reinforcement caused the pigeons to persist less compared to pigeons that did not have that history.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Columbidae
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*