Saturday, October 13, 2018

Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias

Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias
By Hafenbrack, A. C., Kinias, Z., & Barsade, S. G.

Summary & Critique by Billy



The authors begin their paper by defining both mindfulness meditation as well as sunk-cost bias.  Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focus and awareness of the present while eliminating thoughts of the past and the future.  A typical execution of mindfulness meditation is simply focusing on one’s breathing and how the body feels with each inhale and exhale over a short period of time.
To define sunk-cost bias, Hafenbrack et al. citing (Arkes & Blumer, 1985) state that it is the tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort or time has been made (Hafenbrack et al., 2013).  The authors suggest mindfulness could have an impact on increasing resistance to sunk-cost bias due to the emotional and temporal processes involved in the decision making.  Further discussion occurs regarding prior research on how a past/future mindset, as well as negative emotions, can increase sunk-cost bias.  This discussion further suggests a relationship between mindfulness meditation and sunk-cost bias with supporting research on mindfulness meditation’s ability to increase a person’s subjective well being and decrease negative emotion.
Hafenbrack et al. conducted four studies testing their hypothesis that mindful meditation would increase resistance to sunk-cost bias. 

Study 1

This was a correlational study between trait mindfulness and resistance to the sunk-cost bias.  They used two control factors to test this, age and self-esteem.  They hypothesized that greater trait mindfulness would predict an increased resistance to sunk-cost bias (Hafenbrack et al, 2014).  The researchers had 187 adults complete the mindful attention awareness scale as well as the Resisting Sunk Costs section of the Adult Decision-Making Competence Inventory.  Self-esteem was controlled for by having participants complete the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale.  The researchers determined that trait mindfulness was positively correlated with resisting the sunk cost bias (r = .205, p = .003) (Hafenbrack et al., 2013).  When entering age, self-esteem and trait mindfulness as independent variables in a linear regression model they determined that age and trait mindfulness were significant predictors of resisting the sunk-cost bias, but self-esteem was not (Hafenbreck et al., 2013). 

Study 2a and 2b

Both studies tested the relationship between state mindfulness and the sunk cost bias.  In both studies, participants either underwent a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session focused on breathing or were part of a control group that underwent a 15-minute mind wandering induction, that emphasized allowing their mind to wander. After each session was complete participants were then presented with a sunk-cost scenario, with a differing scenario for 2a and 2b.  In each scenario, the subject’s perspective was that of a key decision maker at a company.  Each scenario provided a background regarding an initial investment made by their company for a product, and that after the investment was made, it was brought to their attention that their investment was inferior to another product.  The participants then had to decide to continue with their initial investment, which would indicate sunk-cost bias or to give up on their initial investment.
Both studies concluded that mindfulness meditation increased participants resistance to sunk-cost bias.

2a: 78% in the meditation group resisted bias compared to 44% who resisted in the control group.

2b: 53% in the meditation group resisted bias compared to the 29% who resisted in the control group.


This study was an experiment looking at decreased temporal focus on the future/past and decreased state negative affect as the underlying mechanisms that make mindful meditation effective.  The study was an online survey that utilized similar 15-minute recorded induction focused on breathing.  This was followed by multiple survey questions to measure resistance to sunk-cost bias, temporal focus, and positive/negative affect. This data was input into three bootstrapping mediation tests.  Hafenbreck et al concluded that mindfulness meditation decreased temporal focus on the past and future which in turn reduced negative affect and led to greater resistance to sunk-cost bias (Hafenbreck et al, 2013). 

I think that this article was insightful regarding the power of meditation.  The fact that they were able to provide multiple relevant studies that support meditation as a tool to improve decision making with significant empirical evidence.  Their studies used only a single and short 15-minute session of meditation.  They noted that this was more practical to existing studies that utilized 8 weeks of meditation training.  I would like to see if there is a diminishing returns aspect to meditation and its ability to improve resistance to sunk-cost bias.  Also, research into how meditation can impact creating more accurate estimates would be an interesting next step.

Hafenbrack, A. C., Kinias, Z., & Barsade, S. G. (2013). Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias. Psychological Science, 25(2), 369–376.


  1. Billy - there may be an element of diminishing returns to meditation's effect on sunk-cost bias, but I would argue that the advantages of the methodology itself are much more robust. I would look into the immediate advantages of meditation, like its relationship to stress reduction, clarity, judgement, reflection, anxiety and depression reduction, etc. Those will obviously serve as proxies to more specific functions of intelligence and decision-making.

    1. I agree with you Bryant. I also really like diminishing returns theory

  2. I am not familiar with meditation as a methodology, but it seems as though it is effective in resisting sunk-cost biases. Something I feel would influence the results is the experience with the technique. Did the people in the 15 min and 8 week training have the same amount of knowledge or experience with meditation? I feel that with more experience, it would be easier to place yourself into the mindset and with less experience it would be more difficult to do.

  3. Billy, I also read this article. I found that the authors work on the sunk-cost bias may be transferable to other biases that we deal with in effective analysis. The idea that reducing future and past thoughts, which is where analysts draw their heuristics and assumptions about evidence, would have a profound impact on analysis, similar to what Bryant is saying. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  4. William,
    The positive correlation between resistance to sunk-cost bias and trait mindfulness is an interesting finding. My takeaway from this article is that meditation's true value in improving analysis is by mediating cognitive biases. Would you agree?

  5. Billy, this article was a great choice! I would argue that in the first study self esteem could not be a controlled variable. There is a perceived self esteem but there is no way to say flat out this is the self esteem level that someone has. The second two studies were a little more reliable. In general, most people are resistant to sunk cost. Nobody wants to spend the money without the grantee they will earn it back. Thats how business start though. It is surprising how much of a percentage changed after doing mediation.