The sunk cost effect refers to the tendency for people to escalate commitment to a course of action in which they have made substantial prior investments of time, money, or other resources. If people behaved rationally, they would make choices based on the marginal costs and benefits of their actions. The amount of any previous unrecoverable investment is a sunk cost and should not affect the current decision. However, research demonstrates that people often do consider past investment decisions when choosing future courses of action. In particular, individuals tend to pursue activities in which they have made prior investments. Often, they become overly committed to certain activities despite consistently poor results. They “throw good money after bad”, and the situation continues to escalate.
Many companies face the problem of the sunk cost effect. In fact, it's particularly problematic for firms involved in extremely expensive and lengthy product development projects. In those situations, the sunk costs can be enormous, and it can be very difficult for managers, scientists, and/or engineers to walk away from a project in which they have not only invested a great deal of money, but also much time, energy, and personal reputation.
A recent Business Week article suggests that Merck has found a way to try to combat this problem. Here's a snippet from the article (for the entire article, click here):
Merck is rewarding scientists for failure. One of the hardest decisions any scientist has to make is when to abandon an experimental drug that's not working. An inability to admit failure leads to inefficiencies. A scientist may spend months and tens of thousands of dollars studying a compound, hoping for a result he or she knows likely won't come, rather than pitching in on a project with a better chance of turning into a viable drug. So Kim (Merck R&D head Peter Kim) is promising stock options to scientists who bail out on losing projects. It's not the loss per se that's being rewarded but the decision to accept failure and move on. "You can't change the truth. You can only delay how long it takes to find it out," Kim says. "If you're a good scientist, you want to spend your time and the company's money on something that's going to lead to success."