The Eight of Cups and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

In Pamela Colman-Smith’s classic version of the 8 of Cups, a figure in a red cloak, his or her back turned to us, is striding away from a bleak, rocky shore supported by a staff. In the foreground, eight cups are displayed in groups of three and five. Possibly he’s heading for greener pastures. In any case, the image is clearly that of someone resolutely turning his or her back on a situation.

Let’s break this down a little. Stepping away from the rather prescriptive picture (and all narratively focused pictures tend to be prescriptive which can be limiting for people who are at an early stage in their journey with the cards) , let’s look at what’s implied by the number ‘8’ and the nature of the Cups. When we looked at the Eight of Wands, we saw a kind of nervy over-commitment. Lots of things were happening with projects and decisions flying here there and everywhere. What was missing was a sense of things being grounded. Filtering this sense of ‘slightly too much’ through the suit of Cups, relating as they do to emotions, relationships and the instinctual, gives us the emotional kick-back to that situation: “Too much! Take it away!”

Coming at it from another angle, this Eight asks about the depth of your emotional commitment. There is confusion, a lack of satisfaction with one’s state which makes it tempting to down tools and walk away. You might see this Eight appearing when you’re over-worked in a job or doing tasks which take something of an emotional toll. Another context (look carefully at the surrounding cards) might be if you feel under-appreciated by managers or workmates or even customers. Does what you’re doing really mean enough to you to put up with all this? Hence an alternate possibility for the Rider-Waite-Smith illustration – of someone who’s downed tools and walked off. They’ve had it up to here and they are gone.

Reversed, the card could indicate a number of variations on this theme. It could refer to someone who needs to let go of a situation but can’t quite bring themselves to. Or someone who’s abandoned a dream or vision they’ve held onto for a long time – perhaps too long. Another way of looking at this is to go back and consider the meaning of the Four of Cups; one of its meanings is the challenge to make your mind up and commit to a particular vision. The Eight is the Four Doubled But Doubting – is this really worth it?

This relates to a final possibility for this complex, challenging card whether upright of reversed – the Eight of Cups as the Angel of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a classic business problem to which there is no good answer for everyone. Let’s say you’ve spent most of your department’s budget on a shiny new customer relationship management system. It’s a risky, innovative tool and a project that could possibly bring a you lot of prestige. But there’s a problem. Eight months in and it still doesn’t work. Your IT manager, a wise old bird whom you perhaps didn’t consult in as much detail as you should have done when the project started, suggests dumping it and going with an off-the-shelf product that’ll deliver 90% of the benefit for a smaller cost, though admittedly that cost will have to be added onto the huge amount you’ve already spent on the Turbo-Dino-CRM ™. It’s at the point you find yourself saying the deadly words…

“But we’ve already spent so much on this and it’ll all go to waste!”

That’s the sunk cost fallacy, the idea that money already spent somehow counts for more than money that might be spent in the future. “We’ve spent so much already in cash, time, ideas…we can’t stop now!” It’s a scarily common position in politics, business, relationships…A couple of particularly brutal examples are outlined in this article.

The point is that you can stop now. Money spent on a bad idea is sunk. It’s gone. Grit your teeth, pick up your staff and put on your red cloak. Leave those chimerical dreams behind you and move on.