Disclaimer: Note that while I work as a public servant, this is entirely my own initiative and what I post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, my office or my position there in.

Trying something new can be hard, it can be exciting, it can be scary, it can be educational. Quitting something new can be the same. With the recent Windows XP ‘retirement’, I decided to try a free operating system (OS), Ubuntu, on my new computer. After four months of trial and error, reading and learning, satisfaction and clean re-installs, I ended up purchasing a copy of Windows 8.1 a weekend back. I decided that moving forward with an unfamiliar OS was simply not worth the cost savings for me against the time sunk into learning how to use the new OS.

So at what point do we make a decision to quit something we started? I passed by a video on making better decisions which explains sunk costs and how we should not take them into consideration for current decisions. While I agree that we should not take sunk costs alone into consideration, they can be a source of education to better inform decisions. Otherwise, we run into the realm of insanity – that is, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I found an example when I was reading an English-language Russian newspaper online, which described an amusing anecdote about life aboard a modern submarine. The nature of that life is that the enlisted sailors must not disobey orders.

“The most colorful character among my commanders was Capt. First Rank Gaponenko. Once he came down from the bridge, looked at us, and asked: ‘What are you guys up to?’ We replied that we were practising formation maneuvers, and were about to coordinate actions with the other boat, No 685. Suddenly, the commander reached for the mike: ‘No. 681 to 685, please kill your engine.’ The reply came instantly: ‘No. 685 to 681, unable, over.’ Gaponenko didn’t like this at all. ‘Kill your engine now, it’s an order!’. An even more insistent reply came: ‘Repeat, unable to comply, over.’ Gaponenko flew right off the handle: ‘I am ordering you to kill your engine, right now, do you hear me? It’s Capt. First Rank Gaponenko speaking! I’ll hang you out to dry when you return to base!’ Uneasy silence fell. Then the radioman, who was half dead with fear, whispered: ‘Comrade Captain 1st Rank, I am sorry, it was my mistake. We need to coordinate with No 683; No 685 is an aircraft.’ Gaponenko broke the communications panel in wrath, stormed out, and stayed in his quarters until we surfaced.”

The other half of the coin is that the orders must be reasonable and that important information must be taken into account before giving the orders. This said, if one simply “stay[s] in his quarters”, one cannot take the error into account – balancing the sunk cost of looking foolish in front of one’s crew – when giving an order in a truly dangerous situation.

So I believe decision-making should be influenced by sunk costs, but not in isolation, and likely more so in future decision-making than current. The next time I get a new computer, I will consider carefully the time investment of learning a new operating system and weigh it against any financial investment.

Craig Sellars
Craig Sellars is a passionate Canadian public servant and biologist. Connect with Craig on Twitter @CraigSellars.