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Let It Go: Positive Affect Attenuates Sunk Cost Bias by Enhancing Cognitive Flexibility

Abstract Sunk cost bias is a pervasive problem in consumer decision making. It occurs when people continue to invest resources toward unsuccessful outcomes merely because they previously invested in them. This tendency exists because people devote too much attention to prior investments without considering how other factors may impact their decision outcome. While many suggested interventions to attenuate sunk cost bias involve altering cognitive processes, we examine an alternate affective route. Specifically, we propose that inducing positive affect attenuates sunk cost bias by naturally facilitating flexible thought processes. Across four studies, using hypothetical and real decision tasks, we find that positive affect induced in three different ways consistently attenuates sunk cost bias involving money, time, and effort investments. Further, we demonstrate that this occurs because people experiencing positive affect have enhanced cognitive flexibility. They consider more relevant decision factors and perceive sunk cost as having less of an influence on their decision outcomes. Then, in a fifth study, we show that a thought intervention promoting flexibility can attenuate consumers’ suboptimal commitment tendency in a field setting.

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