The sunk cost fallacy as demonstrated by Farmville

I stumbled upon a really interesting article from You Are Not So Smart today on sunk cost fallacy. Go read the full article, it’s really worth it. Below is an excerpt on how Farmville used sunk cost fallacy to achieve its success.

Farmville is a valuable tool for understanding your weakness in the face of loss. The sunk cost fallacy is the engine which keeps Farmville running, and the developers behind Farmville know this.

Farmville is free, and the first time you log on you are transported to a netherworld patch of grass where you float above an abeyant young farmhand eager to get to work. His or her will is your will, and his or her world is empty save a patch of land ready to be plowed and a crop of vegetables ready to be picked.

Wading into the experience, you feel the game designers have made every attempt to turn your head toward the screen in a way which brings no attention to the grip on your scalp. It is all your choice, they seem to be saying, no one is forcing you to proceed. Here, harvest these beans. Hey, why not plant some seed? Oh, look, you could plow a patch of land, you know, if you want. A loading bar appears and then quickly fills as you watch your grinning Aryan-ish avatar with his messy-on-purpose haircut virtually dirty his digital overalls. The cheery music, which sounds like the cyborg interpretation of clumsily extracted memories from the brain of a reanimated Old West piano player, drones on and on. The moment the loop restarts is difficult to pinpoint.

Within a few minutes, you’ve done everything which can be done on your first garden, but there are hints all over the screen portending a fully functioning Texas-ranch-sized megafarm, should you plant your seeds well. Once you learn you must wait at least an hour or so to continue, you start clicking around and find you have coins and cash which can be spent on trees, plants, seeds, an impressive bestiary of jaunty fantastical creatures and a bevy of clothes, devices, buildings and props. You have just enough currency when the game starts to buy a caramel apple tree or some honeybees, but the nice stuff like pink tractors and magic waterfalls, will have to wait until you’ve played the game a while. If you stay vigilant, checking back throughout the day to see how close your strawberries are to being ripe or if a wandering animal has visited your feed trough, you can earn more virtual currency and advance in levels and unlock more stuff. You’ll need to plant and plow and harvest to advance, most of which is also an investment in something which must be harvested…later.

This is the powerful force behind Farmville. Playing Farmville is a commitment to a virtual life form. Your neglect has consequences. If you don’t return, your investments die and you will feel like you wasted your time, money and effort. You must return, sometimes days later, to reap the reward of the time and virtual money you are spending now. If you don’t, not only do you not get rewarded, you lose your investments.

To stave off these feelings you can pay Farmville real-world money or participate in offers from their advertisers to negate the need to tend to certain things, reverse the death of crops and expand your farm ahead of schedule. You can also ask your friends to help, since the game has tendrils reaching deep into Facebook.

Although all these strategies will keep the fallacies at bay for a few days, they also feed them. The urge to stay the course and keep your farm flourishing gets more powerful the more you invest in it, the more you ask others for help, the more time you spend thinking about it. People set alarms to wake up in the middle of the night to keep their farm alive. You continue to play Farmville not to have fun, but to avoid negative emotions. It isn’t the crop you are harvesting, but your fallacies. You return and click to patch cracks in a dam holding back something icky in your mind – the sense you wasted something you can never get back.

To say Farmville has been successful is a silly sort of understatement. It has led to the creation of a whole new genre of entertainment. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being generated by social gaming, and like so many profitable businesses, someone is hedging their bets against a predicable weakness in your behavior in order to turn a profit.

Farmville players are mired in a pit of sunk costs. They can never get back the time or the money they’ve spent, but they keep playing to avoid feeling the pain of loss and the ugly sensation waste creates.

You may not play Farmville, but there is probably something similar in your life. It could be a degree you want to change, or a career you want to escape, or a relationship you know is rotten. You don’t return to it over and over again to create good experiences and pleasant memories but to hold back the negative emotions you expect to feel if you accept the loss of time, effort, money or whatever else you have invested.


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