"One of the things that's very important ... is to never allow our youngsters to die in vain. And I've made the pledge to their parents. Withdrawing from the battlefield of Iraq would be just that. And it's not going to happen under my watch." -- George W. Bush, April 14, 2004
In this memorable quote -- which was one of many similar statements --George W. Bush gave us probably history's most explicit example of how the "sunk cost" argument suffuses today's national security politics.
While logic suggests mounting casualties should be a reason to end wars, the "sunk cost" phenomenon posits that the more casualties a nation suffers during a war, the more that nation is psychologically committed to the war. The idea is that because we simply don't want to face the possibility that our countrymen "died in vain," our natural instinct is to not only push away evidence that they died for lies (WMD), misguided theories (the Vietnam "domino" effect) or petty personal vendettas ("this is the guy who tried to kill my dad!"), we also are prone to "stay the course" for that elusive victory that will supposedly make all the blood and pain and suffering worth it. As Sen. Barack Obama said in criticizing the Bush administration in 2007, the sunk-cost phenomenon basically says, "We're doubling down; we're going to keep on going ... because now we've got a lot in the pot and we can't afford to lose what we put in the pot."
Behavioral economists have long hypothesized about this psychological pathology in many different parts of human interaction. In investing, it's called "throwing good money after bad." In casino gambling, it's refusing to cut your losses, and instead trying to big-bet your way back to profitability. I could go on with examples, but you know what I'm talking about because you've seen it in your own life.
Until now, the "sunk-cost" impulse was seen as entirely reflexive -- a natural human reaction hard-wired into our brains and therefore determinative of our politics, whether we like it or not. But this week, a social psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis published the results of a study that is "thought to be the first non-anecdotal demonstration of the 'activation' of the sunk-cost effect"--and how that activation can be entirely manufactured.
Here's the crux of their findings:
Subjects were put into two groups; in one they were asked to solve three decisions, all related to sunk-cost effects; in the other, they solved three different problems, not related to sunk costs ...
Those participants exposed to the sunk-cost scenarios unknowingly were being primed to think of the aversiveness of throwing away previous investments, what Lambert calls "the don't-waste" goal.
In Phase II of the experiment, all subjects were assigned one of two short reading assignments: One assignment was about war casualties, the other about the weather. Next, all subjects took an attitude questionnaire of 25 generic questions about the particular war. Lambert and his group found that those subjects exposed to the don't-waste goal who read the story about war casualties tended to be significantly more in favor of the war than those controls who weren't primed the same way.
Considering this, we see that standard calls by politicians to "stay the course" lest we "allow our youngsters to die in vain" are less reflections of the country's natural psyche than sophisticated efforts to artificially "prime" that psyche for an emotional lurch toward a desired pro-war policy position.
With the Obama administration now threatening to break its Iraq withdrawal promises, and with the Afghanistan war still going strong in the face of record casualties, this priming remains powerful. Though the current president (to his credit) isn't explicitly referencing the "sunk-cost" effect in his rhetoric, that effect still defines our emotional reactions to yet more militarist status quo.
For conservative warmongers, that emotional reaction means remaining steadfastly behind these conflicts, painful consequences be damned. For liberals and independents naturally suspicious of the wars, it means opposing the conflicts in theory (as polls show the country does), but giving up the kind of intense protests and activism that marked those early war years before the costs and casualties skyrocketed -- that is, before the huge costs were "sunk" into the endeavors.
The result is exactly the neoconservatives' original desired effect -- a kind of passive preference for "stay the course." Indeed, we are now so programmed to see news of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan as reason to continue those wars -- so fearful of "losing" our investment of blood and treasure -- that we barely even discuss what "winning" actually means.