Learnings Mental Models

The Ratchet Effect: How Our Minds Fall Prey to the Irrational


In the vast landscape of human decision-making, our minds are subject to various biases and cognitive traps that can lead us astray from rational thinking. One such mental model is the Ratchet Effect, a phenomenon rooted in human psychology that affects our day-to-day lives, personal decisions, business strategies, and even public policy-making. Understanding the Ratchet Effect is essential for avoiding irrational choices and ensuring better outcomes. In this blog post, we will delve into the concept, examine its prevalence in different contexts, explore its psychological underpinnings, provide strategies to identify and counteract it, and emphasize the importance of awareness in decision-making.

Defining the Ratchet Effect and its Relevance

The Ratchet Effect refers to a psychological bias where individuals or groups gradually escalate their commitment to a chosen course of action, even when faced with evidence that contradicts its effectiveness or rationality. Instead of reassessing the situation and adjusting their approach accordingly, people tend to stubbornly hold on to their original decision, often escalating their efforts and investment.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant in decision-making processes because it can lead to irrational choices that are contrary to our best interests. The Ratchet Effect often operates without conscious awareness, and individuals may find themselves trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle, unable to disengage from a failing endeavor. By understanding the intricacies of this mental model, we can recognize its presence and make more informed and objective decisions.

Examples of the Ratchet Effect

  1. Personal Life Decisions: Imagine a person who has invested years into a career that no longer brings them fulfillment. Despite growing dissatisfaction, they find it difficult to change paths due to the sunk costs associated with their education, experience, and time. The individual may continue to invest more time and effort, believing that persistence will eventually lead to a breakthrough, even if it goes against their true desires and potential for happiness.
  2. Business Scenarios: In the corporate world, the Ratchet Effect can be observed when companies continue to invest in failing projects or initiatives. A company might allocate substantial resources to a product that fails to gain market traction. Instead of cutting their losses, they may increase investments, hoping to turn the situation around. This escalation can lead to significant financial losses and hinder the organization’s ability to adapt to changing market conditions.
  3. Public Policy-Making: Governments and policymakers are not immune to the Ratchet Effect. Once a policy or regulation is put into place, it can be challenging to reverse or modify it, even when evidence suggests that it is ineffective or counterproductive. Political pressures, public perception, and the fear of admitting mistakes can contribute to the escalation of commitment to a flawed policy, hampering progress and optimal decision-making.

Psychological Biases and Underpinnings:

Several mental biases contribute to the Ratchet Effect, influencing our decision-making processes. These biases include:

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy: This bias refers to our tendency to consider sunk costs (investments we can’t recover) when making decisions. We feel a loss aversion and continue investing in a failing endeavor because we have already invested time, money, or effort into it.
  2. Loss Aversion: Human beings are naturally averse to losses and tend to prioritize avoiding losses over pursuing gains. This bias can lead us to persist in our decisions, even when the expected gains are unlikely or nonexistent.
  3. Confirmation Bias: This bias leads us to seek information that supports our existing beliefs and ignore or downplay evidence that contradicts them. Confirmation bias reinforces our commitment to a chosen course of action, preventing us from objectively reassessing our decisions.

Counteracting the Ratchet Effect

Recognizing when we might be succumbing to the Ratchet Effect is crucial for avoiding its pitfalls. Here are practical strategies to counteract this mental trap:

  1. Awareness and Mindfulness: Cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness to recognize when the Ratchet Effect is at play. Regularly question your decisions, assess their effectiveness, and be open to the possibility of changing course.
  2. Regular Evaluation: Set specific milestones and regularly evaluate the progress and outcomes of your decisions. Be prepared to adjust your approach if the evidence suggests that a change is necessary.
  3. Seek Diverse Perspectives: Actively seek out opinions and viewpoints that challenge your own. Engaging with different perspectives can help you avoid confirmation bias and broaden your understanding of the situation at hand.
  4. Consider Opportunity Costs: Before escalating commitment to a decision, evaluate the opportunity costs associated with it. Assess whether the resources invested can be better utilized elsewhere and be willing to make strategic pivots if necessary.


The Ratchet Effect is a prevalent mental trap that influences decision-making processes in various domains of life. By anchoring itself in human psychology, it can lead individuals and groups to make irrational choices that defy their best interests. However, armed with awareness and the tools to counteract it, we can escape the clutches of the Ratchet Effect. Recognizing the biases that contribute to this phenomenon and actively challenging them allows for more objective decision-making and a greater likelihood of favorable outcomes. Remember, breaking free from the Ratchet Effect begins with a willingness to let go of unproductive commitments and embrace change for the sake of progress and personal growth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *