Sensitivity to Sunk Costs Depends on Attention to the Delay

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In the WebSurf task, humans forage for videos paying costs in terms of wait times on a time-limited task. A variant of the task in which demands during the wait time were manipulated revealed the role of attention in susceptibility to sunk costs. Consistent with parallel tasks in rodents, previous studies have found that humans (undergraduates measured in lab) preferred shorter delays, but waited longer for more preferred videos, suggesting that they were treating the delays economically. In an Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) sample, we replicated these predicted economic behaviors for a majority of participants. In the lab, participants showed susceptibility to sunk costs in this task, basing their decisions in part on time they have already waited, which we also observed in the subset of the mTurk sample that behaved economically. In another version of the task, we added an attention check to the wait phase of the delay. While that attention check further increased the proportion of subjects with predicted economic behaviors, it also removed the susceptibility to sunk costs. These findings have important implications for understanding how cognitive processes, such as the deployment of attention, are key to driving re-evaluation and susceptibility to sunk costs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number604843
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Feb 22 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for data collection was provided by the University of Minnesota. This work was supported by P50-MH119569 (ADR, AWM), by R21-MH120785 (ADR, AWM), and by T32-MH115688 (RK).

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Kazinka, MacDonald and Redish.


  • attention
  • cognition
  • effort
  • foraging
  • mTurk
  • multiple decision systems
  • sunk costs


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