Sunk cost fallacy and relationships in older adults


By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

Marianne Delorey of Colony Retirement Homes writes about sunk cost fallacy and relationships in older adults
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

“You can either make time or make excuses. Only one of those will move your life forward.” ―Tamara Vellozzo


Summer is a time for cookouts and family time. I love seeing my residents get excited to see their friends and family, but it is hard to watch some interactions. I see children who cannot relate to parents, parents who cannot let their children live their lives. I see sister and brother pairs that bicker, and some that behave. I see lots of angst in so many relationships. And I also see healing.

The healing starts when all of us realize that a better relationship is important, and both parties decide to invest in making it better. But what happens when only one person cares?

There is a psychological principle called the “sunk cost fallacy” that notes the likelihood of continuing to invest in a plan that is failing. Research shows that older people are less likely to continue feeling like they must continue investing. But how, if at all, does this pertain to relationships?

Research is often done on hypothetical situations such as investing in a plan or watching a movie. While researchers have noted that as people get older, they are less prone to continuing to invest in sunk costs, it is difficult to generate a real-life scenario that gets at the true investment of time as we have with our families and friends – not only the time and energy invested, but the perceived importance of the relationship.

Why do people invest in certain relationships, especially if the perceived future rewards are less obvious? For some, it is a connection to who they are, their history, the rest of their family. For some, it may be filial piety, loyalty, guilt, or obligation. I would bet, however, that many people view these troublesome relationships as good, but not great. 

Relationships take constant work but the first relationship that must be worked on is the one you have with yourself. A little introspection may help people determine why these life-long relationships are important. Perhaps you like your aunt, but you find her too bossy. You stay in touch because you feel you owe it to your mother. Think about how the relationship could be better for you. Are there boundaries you can put in place or ways to shift your thinking that could help?

I have a good friend who has been in my life for decades. I noticed, however, that she didn’t always answer the phone when I called, and it made me call her more. The more I called, the less she answered and the more frustrated I got. I valued (and still value) our shared history and I did not want to give up the friendship. Was I investing in a doomed friendship? Was this the sunk cost fallacy in action? Maybe, but relationships are not one-time decisions. The truth is, I valued the relationship more than my friend did. This doesn’t mean she is wrong or bad, just that we were mismatched. I could wait for her to call and still enjoy the time we had. We are not as close as I thought we were, but now it upsets me less.

The hard part for most people is accepting that you can only really change yourself and your reaction to what other people say/do. Relationships for older adults are important and we need to make the time to figure out what we need and want out of them to make them better. Sunk costs matter, but the future matters more. Make that family memory this summer, but make it a healing opportunity, too.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or and


Creating a new tomorrow despite memory loss (

Becoming Comfortable Being Uncomfortable (

Following your own path all the way to the end of the road (