Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sunk Costs

Wealthy Bush backers have launched a new ad campaign to persuade voters in certain states to back the war. Wounded soldiers and families of the dead have been recruited to tell viewers how they feel: that don’t want their sacrifices to have been in vain.

Organizers of this campaign have had the leisure to seek out individuals whose reaction to trauma and unthinkable loss suits their purposes. But how many other amputees or survivors feel differently? How many would say “Don’t let this happen to somebody else”?

The question is purely rhetorical, of course, because regardless of how people feel, feelings should never be the basis of decision making—especially when it comes of decisions of monumental importance. Rational decision makers take people’s feelings into consideration, of course—but the key word is rational.

Two years ago, Barry Schwartz pointed out the propensity of the president to fall for the sunk cost fallacy—the notion that because we’ve already spent something to gain something, we’re justified in spending more. And more.

Evidently the president didn’t read that article.

People who think for a living—economists, philosophers, psychologists, and decision experts—have known this for a long time: past expenditures are irrelevant to making rational decisions about the future. It’s an illusion to think that we can compensate in any way for what’s already been lost by “staying the course.” What’s spent or lost cannot be regained, but future costs can be avoided.

For people of my generation, who remember Viet Nam, the parallels between the two wars are impossible to ignore, and this is one of them: continual reminders that many have died or otherwise sacrificed their lives for the cause. Implied is the notion that if we quit, we somehow let them down.

Of course we should honor them—those who courageously accept the fateful place their government has assigned to them. But in deciding where to go from here—wherever “here” may be—we need to look forward, not backwards, along the path. Our responsibility is to those not yet maimed, killed, or traumatized. It is they whose futures depend on decisions made now.

If there are rational reasons for Americans to continue fighting in Iraq, I’m open to hearing about them. But efforts to influence me through fallacy and false sentiment only make me angry.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Mind Worth a Moment

If we pause to think about the atrocities people routinely inflict on one another, such as the Nazi holocaust, most of us ask the same two questions:
  1. Would ordinary people do such horrific things?

  2. Could the same thing happen here and now?

Stanley Milgram’s work in the early 1960s answered both questions: yes.

In a series of experiments that began at Yale, Milgram employed ordinary adults in what they believed to be a study about learning. On the instructions of a white-coated authority figure, the volunteers were told to deliver increasingly high-voltage shocks to a person in another room, an actor they believed to be another volunteer. The shocks weren’t real, but the subjects believed they were. As the shocks increased in intensity, the subjects heard sounds—such as moaning, pleading, pounding on the wall—that led them to believe they were torturing another human being.

Shockingly (pardon the pun), virtually every one of the subjects of these experiments participated far beyond the point where they thought they were inflicting pain. Fully 65% thought they were doing serious harm to (or even, in some cases, killing) their experimental partner. Yet, urged on by authority, they continued.

Everyone needs to know this: We are social animals, programmed to obey. Given the right circumstances, any one of us can become an agent of misery and mayhem. Milgram’s work is doubly important because it could not be duplicated today. Modern experimental ethics wouldn’t allow it because of the psychological stress experienced by the subjects.

Milgram had a knack for asking new questions about the human psyche and exploring them in unusual ways. Though he’s best known for the experiments about obedience, he made other notable contributions, in his all-too-short life, that further our understanding of ourselves and society. He developed original and effective ways to study prejudice, the effects of living in cities, mental maps, and the “small-world phenomenon” (also known as the notion of “six degrees of separation”).

Stanley Milgram was born this day in 1933.