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A Stop to Escalating Commitment

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Amy Fried, Ph.D.     Permalink
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As campaign 2006 draws to a close, and with "stay the course" apparently being abandoned, the message the Republicans seem to want to leave the electorate with is this: the wimpy Democrats just want to "give up" on Iraq. Elizabeth Dole put it this way on Meet the Press with Tim Russert: "... you know, it's almost as if the Democrats, you know, it's like they're content with losing because to pull out, to withdraw from this war is losing. No question about it."

On Larry King Live on November 6, former Bush speechwriter David Frum put it this way: "[the Democrats] prefer to lose rather than do what is necessary to win."

And on CNN the same day, Rick Santorum said "...you see the irresponsibility of the Democrats who just aren't working -- trying to figure out a way to win this war. They're just trying to figure out a way to play politics with the war and try to have a strategy to get out."

After scandal and mismanagement, after allegations of detainee abuse abroad, and encroachments upon civil rights at home, the Republicans are left with nothing but a charge that the Democrats are sissies.

On the one hand, this is reminiscent of a child's view of the world - stubbornness is a virtue; stomping one's feet and crossing one's arms are the only alternatives to defeat. As adults, we learn to look at the world with more complexity; that there are times when we need to let go, to step back and assess the situation; times when winning must be defined with the long term view.

Social scientists have described a syndrome that is an adult version of this irrational behavior. It's called "escalating commitment to a course of action." It was a popular topic of administrative science research in the 1980's. The classic scenario is what most of us call "throwing good money after bad." A person makes an investment of money, time, or other resources, and things do not go well. The decision-maker's ego has now become entangled in the wisdom of the original decision. We've all experienced it, whether it's a relationship, a car, or a job. The most rational course of action is to cut our losses, but we become afraid to admit to having made a mistake in the first place. We rationalize the decision to invest more resources in the venture by telling ourselves that we can recoup our losses through future gains.

The fact that management scientists have spent years studying this phenomenon attests to how much money and time have been wasted in this psychological trap.

The Vietnam War is often used as a classic example of escalating commitment. Unfortunately, the architects of the invasion and occupation in Iraq have not learned from history. In both cases, it is lives, rather than funds, that have become lost.

Sure, there are times when not giving up is a laudable goal: when the original cause is just; when the facts we based our original investment upon, are true; when there's a glimmer of hope that our strategy is working; when the current course of action is not making matters worse. Of course, none of these conditions holds up in the case of Iraq.

That's why, if this election is about anything, it is about a return to rationality, about learning from history, and about cutting our losses - before more lives are sacrificed in the name of self-justification.


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Amy Fried is the author of "Escaping Dick Cheney's Stomach." She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, and has been an advocate for church-state separation and other civil liberties issues. She writes on women's issues, media, veganism (more...)

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