[Preprint] Capuchin and rhesus monkeys show sunk cost effects in a psychomotor task


Human decision-making is often swayed by irrecoverable investments even though it should only be based on future – and not past – costs and benefits. Although this sunk cost effect is widely documented and can lead to devastating losses, the underlying psychological mechanisms are unclear. To tease apart possible explanations through a comparative approach, we assessed capuchin and rhesus monkeys’ susceptibility to sunk costs in a psychomotor task. Monkeys needed to track a moving target with a joystick-controlled cursor for variable durations. They could stop at any time, ending the trial without reward. To minimize the work required for a reward, monkeys should have always persisted for at least 1 second, but should have abandoned the trial if that did not yield a reward. Capuchin monkeys and especially rhesus macaques persisted to trial completion even when it was suboptimal, and were more likely to complete the trial the longer they had already tracked the target. These effects were less pronounced, although still present, when the change in expected tracking duration was signalled visually. These results show that sunk cost effects can arise in the absence of human-unique factors and may emerge, in part, because persisting can resolve uncertainty.

Watzek J, Brosnan SF (submitted) Capuchin and rhesus monkeys show sunk cost effects in a psychomotor task. [preprint] · [dataset]