...most members of Congress from both parties, along with President George W. Bush, believe that we have to "stay the course" and not just "cut and run." ...We all make similarly irrational arguments about decisions in our lives: we hang on to losing stocks, unprofitable investments, failing businesses and unsuccessful relationships. If we were rational, we would just compute the odds of succeeding from this point forward and then decide if the investment warrants the potential payoff. But we are not rational--not in love or war or business--and this particular irrationality is what economists call the "sunk-cost fallacy."
The psychology underneath this and other cognitive fallacies is brilliantly illuminated by psychologist Carol Tavris and University of California, Santa Cruz, psychology professor Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) (Harcourt, 2007). Tavris and Aronson focus on so-called self-justification, which "allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done." The passive voice of the telling phrase "mistakes were made" shows the rationalization process at work.
What happens in those rare instances when someone says, "I was wrong"? Surprisingly, forgiveness is granted and respect is elevated. Imagine what would happen if George W. Bush delivered the following speech:
This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors.... We're not going to have any search for scapegoats ... the final responsibilities of any failure are mine, and mine alone.
Bush's popularity would skyrocket, and respect for his ability as a thoughtful leader willing to change his mind in the teeth of new evidence would soar. That is precisely what happened to President John F. Kennedy after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when he spoke these very words.
Friday, May 04, 2007
Bush's Mistake and Kennedy's Error
This is the title of Michael Shermer's essay in the April 15 issue of the Scientific American, on how self-deception proves itself to be more powerful than deception.