Psychology Corner: Adaptive Preference And Sunk Cost Fallacy

This is Psychology Corner, where Tom brings in his knowledge from his professional life to bear in analysing the psychology and behaviour of Fantasy Football (FPL) managers. I initially wrote a lot of these back in 2017, but they’ve been retrofitted with new examples and finessed to better suit today’s context.

Please note these articles aren’t claiming to explain everything that is going on, but are suggesting a psychological factor (or two) that could be influencing behaviour.

FPL launched without fixtures for the first time ever this August, meaning many managers are busy tinkering away building Gameweek 1 sides.

Drafts are therefore already everywhere across FPL channels.

However, this time allotted to us managers to tinker without fixtures got me thinking: psychologically, what might be happening to us as we (over)think and (over)tinker?

This all got me thinking about two psychological impacts: adaptive preference and sunk cost fallacy, concepts which may give some psychological reasons why tinkering too much, too soon may not be a good idea.

What’s adaptive preference?

The concept comes from utilitarian, disability and welfare theory, reflecting the idea that people in tough conditions create a sense of stability where outside observers might think they’re living far from ideal lives – think people going about their day-to-day business in war torn countries.

Adaptive preference is therefore the idea that we come to satisfy ourselves within our current conditions that we have what we need.

There are many wrinkles to this (e.g. Nussbaum 2001; Baber, 2008), but broadly speaking it’s linked to ideas such as confirmation bias (article here) in that the brain deceives itself into making present conditions acceptable.

This can lead to phenomena such as people rejecting changes that outsiders might feel could make their lives better, because they’re so adapted to the status quo.

That’s why it’s called adaptive preference – humans adapt to the conditions they’re in and start to make peace with any issues that people outside of the situation may have, despite the fact that their objective (true) preference may be something different.

Classic example – the fox and the grape

In Aesop’s Fables, the Greek storyteller tells of how a fox tries to reach a grape on a vine.

Simply put, the fox can’t reach the grape, so he says to himself something like “oh well, I didn’t want it anyway – it’s sour”.

Of course, the moral of the story is that people who cannot achieve something will disparage others who have achieved it – think Piers Moron having a go at Raheem Sterling.

It’s also the genesis of the idiom “sour grapes”.

As well as being a tale with a moral message, this is a good example of adaptive preference because the fox deceives himself into thinking he doesn’t want the grapes, even if his true (rather than adaptive) preference was to eat the grape.

What’s Sunk Cost Fallacy?

Basically this is the concept that if you invest a certain amount of resource in something, you don’t want to give up on it too easily. They’re essentially costs that cannot be recovered (hence “sunk”).

Psychologists Arkes and Blumer demonstrated sunk cost fallacy itself in the 1980s with their famous “ski trip” example.

Subjects were asked to imagine they had spent $100 on a ski trip in one resort, but thereafter found a better trip elsewhere for $50 and booked that too. They were then asked what they would do if the timings clashed, and neither were refundable: which one would they go on?

You won’t be surprised that over half of the participants to the study chose the more expensive trip: it wasn’t as good, but the loss seemed greater.

How do these concepts apply to FPL?

Right, fables and examples out the way (hopefully you’ve grasped the concepts now). Let’s apply these.

Right now

Adaptive preference and sunk cost fallacy are very relevant right now as we tinker away with abandon.

This is because the feeling of settling with our teams may actually be dangerously premature: we might psychologically “set in stone” players and a structure which may not, once we’ve received all the information in terms of preseason set ups and upcoming transfers, be a true reflection of what might be an optimal side come Gameweek 1.

Because we don’t have the information we need, we may fall into psychological traps [cue Admiral Ackbar meme]:

  • We may feel the impact of sunk cost fallacy because we’ve spent lots of time tinkering to create the “perfect” team, meaning any new information may be ignored so as not to lose out on the time invested in your team.
  • Similarly, adaptive preference could play a role: we might deceive ourselves that making changes are the grape to our tinkering foxy selves, as we convince ourselves that the set up we’ve adapted to preferring is the best one.

The impact of both of these effects means that, if new information comes to light, we might be resistant to changing our teams accordingly due to these psychological effects.

This is acutely true in the current context without fixtures. This vital information being absent means abstaining from tinkering may be a good idea for the short term.

This may mean over tinkering managers are psychologically limited compared to others coming later to the tinkering process, who will be freer to create what may end up being a more optimised team.

(Caveat for delicate literalists: OF COURSE there are some players you’ll be strongly considering as a “lock” in your opening side, such as Mo Salah. Don’t be an idiot, apply this using an engaged brain.)

During the season

In the season proper, it’s also vitally important to be aware of adaptive preference and sunk cost fallacy.

It’s easy to hoodwink yourself into thinking that your team is good, and you aren’t missing out on owning a big ticket and/or highly owned player.

Classic example time. TBT when I was fielding teams without Mo Salah in them a couple of years ago, as I plummeted down the ranks after removing him before his Bournemouth hat trick.

Here’s how that panned out:


I just about redeemed myself in the end, but between Gameweeks 19 and 29 I fell fast and devastatingly hard with ten red arrows [insert facepalm emoji and GIF].

However, knowing how adaptive preference and sunk cost fallacy work can help me understand why I failed so hard.

To break the above scenario down through the lens of these effects:

  • I’d adapted to thinking that it was better without Salah because I could fit in other players like Sterling, Sane, Kane and Aubameyang
  • Because I’d made the decision to sell Salah, I’d adapted to make do with what I had – going Salah-less became my sunk cost
  • Resultantly, I’d go into each gameweek psychologically deceiving myself that the team I had was fine at the cost of my rank

It would have been better to recognise that I’d made a mistake and rectify the situation quickly – Salah’s effective ownership was so high that I should have done so.

But I didn’t.

Instead of recognising that there was a problem early, Salah became the grape to my fox.

I was unable to get him in without a -8 hit, so I deceived myself into thinking I didn’t want him anyway, and hoped that I could get back to parity through sticking with the plan I had.

My sunk cost of time, effort and emotional energy into justifying my adapted preference for the Salah-less path led me to ruin.

(Caveat: OF COURSE there’s an element of hindsight here – for every Salah you should buy there’s a Barkley that burns brightly for two weeks then disappears. Up to you to judge the acuity of this psychological foible)


So there you have it: adaptive preference can make you think your team is perfect, and sunk cost can mean you feel you’ve invested a lot of time you’ll never get back, so you may feel you need to plough on despite better options being available.

But it’s always worth considering if it’s premature.

As we look to a long stretch of time for tinkering ahead of the September kick off, maybe try to exercise some restraint and not get too wedded to a particular team or set up just now, especially without the essential context of fixtures.

Remembering adaptive preference and making this pairing with the sunk cost fallacy, I’m not going to tinker a team together until the fixtures are out.

During the season, it might also be worth asking yourself: what am I missing? Why am I happy with missing them? Could this just be adaptive preference? What’s my sunk cost?

Don’t set anything in stone as far as you can, and be flexible in terms of challenging your status quo.

But, as usual, it’s up to you what you do with your new knowledge of these behaviours.

(caveat: these articles condense often complex concepts into bitesize chunks – there is obviously far more depth and detail to each concept, with reams of academic and practical theory that informs what is reported here)