hekebolos has a diary
up highlighting a WaPo article
about the disastrous morale among our soldiers and marines in Iraq; as I was reading the article, I caught this quote, one that has been thrown around for a very long time as justification for our continued bleeding in Iraq:
[Spec. Joshua] Steffey got up to leave the porch and go to bed.
"You know, the point is we've lost too many Americans here already, we're committed now. So whatever the [expletive] end-state is, whatever it is, we need to achieve it -- that way they didn't die for nothing," he said. "We're far too deep in this now."
This canard has been used for quite some time now as a reason to stay in Iraq. It's idiocy, of course, but for some strange reason appears to appeal to a great many people. It seems, to them, to be a sufficient reason to keep getting more and more people killed.
Please, follow me onto the flip side to maybe understand this sort of thinking, and for a suggestion about how to help people from sinking into this delusion.
a) You feel like shit, it's snowing a blizzard, and your dog keeps throwing up on the carpet unless you sit and hold him. But you've spend $75 on a concert ticket for that evening.
b) You feel like shit, it's snowing a blizzard, and your dog keeps throwing up on the carpet unless you sit and hold him. A friend calls you on the phone and offers you a free $75 ticket to a concert that evening.
Do you feel that you would be more likely to go to the concert in a) than in b)? If so, you're like 99% of the humans out there (over the age of 10), and you're also behaving irrationally.
This is an example of the "sunk-cost effect." This is the idea that once you've invested a significant amount in something, that past investment provides a psychological justification for continued investment. The irrational part of it is the fact that the initial investment is already gone, and should play no role in deciding whether or not to continue to invest. (I'm going to do most of my talking here in economic terms, because most of the research has been done on economic behavior, and because I think the reasoning that goes on is essentially the same.)
So, throwing good money after bad is a profoundly irrational action, and in the case of this war, a profoundly immoral one: we are justifying continued death by appeal to past deaths, deaths that we cannot by any future action render meaningful. If this were a purely economic question, then the business decision to continue to invest in a loser might lie in some prospects for a turnaround -- we might be able to get the money back, if things change.
But we can't get back dead soldiers and marines. We just can't. So why do we do this? Why do we persist in such irrational behavior? Well, like most things psychological, we don't know for sure. But there are a couple of good candidate explanations:
- People are more willing to gamble to prevent losses than we are to make gains. If you offer people a choice between a certain $1000 or a 50% shot at $2500, people will take the sure thing. But if you offer them a certain loss of $1000 or a 50% chance at a loss of $2500, they take the gamble.
- People who are personally responsible for making the decisions that led to the loss are reluctant to admit the mistake and are likely to continue to invest in the (even completely vain) hope that things will somehow turn around. This happens for two reasons:
- We are trained, from a very early age, to complete what we begin.
- We are heavily invested in the protection of our self-esteem, either by not admitting error to self, or an attempting to justify the prior decision to others.
Bummer: we're fighting heavy cognitive biases here, folks.
And the really insidious thing about the sunk cost effect is that the more you've invested, the less likely you are to pull out. This suggests that the longer we stay in Iraq, the less likely we are to ever get out -- and the more young men and women, the more Iraqi men, women, and children -- are going to die. (The classic reseach on this is Meyer, 1993; sorry, but I cannot find a link to the original paper.) The more we've lost, the stubborner we get.
So the question for me is what can I do to stop it? I'm an educator, and it so happens that I educate people on cognitive biases, and so I get to teach about this regularly. But what about outside of the classroom?
There are a couple of things we can hope for:
- The most obvious and ineluctable consequence of not stopping is that at some point we will get fed up enough with the continued investment and will stop -- or we will run out of young men and women and will be forced to stop. But we lost 54,000 young men in Vietnam before we decided that we couldn't sustain it. This is sobering, very sobering. It doesn't seem like a viable strategy for stopping.
- Get rid of the person responsible. In cases where an institution has made bad investments, change of course occurred most often when the investment manager responsible was no longer with the company. I think that suggests that we should, as quickly as possible, get rid of Bush and any hint of neo-con thinkers.
- Education. Research shows that the sort of person who is least likely to engage in sunk-cost reasoning is (drum roll, please) an economist. Economists are trained to avoid this, are shown how easy it is to fall into it, and are shown why it is fallacious reasoning. (NB: I am not an economist.)
- Emphasizing the future costs. Sunk-cost effects are very sensitive to framing, and research has showed that if the continued costs are made more salient, people pay less attention to the sunk costs. We need to be very vocal about the soldiers and marines, their families, and the Iraqi people, all of whom are going to continue to suffer as continue stuck down in this idiotic abomination of a war.
So, the demands are clear: educate people about the irrationality of sunk-cost thinking, and get rid of this administration, as soon as we can.
In the meantime, keep telling people that no future action can justify the deaths that have already occurred -- especially if that future action is simply more deaths.