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sunk cost fallacy

Why Donald Trump Seems Impervious To Bad Press

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Saturday Oct 08, 2016 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

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Even bad press gives candidates exposure, which can end up being more beneficial than harmful, and bad press won't cause die-hard Republicans (or Democrats) to abandon their candidate. But assuming we are talking about really bad press and politically-leaning moderates, the sunk cost fallacy can explain why bad press does not have as much of an effect on election outcomes as one would expect. We can see that this phenomenon applies to any candidate, from any political party, in any election.

Your friend tells you that he has a great investment opportunity for you. For just $10k, you can get in on the ground floor of a new and exciting industry. You trust your friend and his judgement, so you invest. A couple of weeks later the same friend asks you for another $10k to invest in a new product that will make the company an overnight success. You invest again. Due to complications, another $10k is needed to complete the product development. If your friend came to you initially asking for $30k for the same opportunity you would have never invested. But rather than accept the loss of the money you already invested, you continue to invest based on your previous commitment. Although irrational, this is not pathological or even unusual behavior; it is a pattern of behavior known as escalation of commitment where we continue to rationalize our decisions, behaviors, or investments when faced with increasingly negative outcomes rather than alter their course. This can help explain why many otherwise rational, politically moderate voters continue to support a Presidential candidate who, based on all that is currently known about him or her, would be a poor choice given the options.

In behavioral science, the sunk cost fallacy is a term that is used more specifically to point out the flaw in reasoning that leads to an escalation of commitment. We may initially choose our candidate based on the party affiliation, and know very little else about the candidate. That is the starting point or the initial commitment. As time progresses, our candidate becomes less and less of a “good investment” as made evident by his or her actions—both past and present. With each new revelation, the rational conclusion would be that the candidate becomes increasingly difficult to support, but with an escalation of commitment, we don’t come to rational conclusions. Because of our investment in the candidate, we not only continue to support the candidate, we justify and rationalize our decision, often to the point of absurdity. This fallacy is commonly explained using the concept of loss aversion, our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. The desire to justify our previous investment so we don’t see them as losses is greater than our desire to make better investments. The more we publicly support our candidate and defend his or her policies or actions, the more we become invested in our candidate, which makes it more difficult to admit our losses and start investing our resources in another candidate. But this is only part of the problem. Having unshakable faith in your candidate even though damaging information about your candidate is released almost daily, can be best explained by a failure to update our impressions.

You have probably heard about the importance of making a good first impression. This is because impressions, or an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone is not easily changed. If someone were to ask you what you think of your candidate, those initial feelings and thoughts would be your impression of your candidate. Your not thinking of every fact about your candidate, rather just how you feel about him or her. As we learn new information about our candidate, that information may or may not update our impression of the candidate. Due to the confirmation bias, we are far more likely to trivialize negative information and as a result, not update our impression of our candidate with that new information. If the information is positive, we are more likely to update the impression, making our candidate increasingly more indestructible to facts and reality.

The solution to having a more objective and unbiased view of any candidate is to make a pros and cons list where you write down as many objective facts as neutrally as possible in the appropriate columns. For example, you would not write “is a great leader” because this is a completely subjective statement replete with bias. Instead, write “was CEO of a billion dollar company.” Be specific. This will also allow you to fact check the information, since “is a great leader” is not a fact, it is an evaluation. Of course, be sure to get your information from a variety of sources across the political spectrum. Once you have your list, you will be able to form a far more accurate impression based on a variety of facts.

Die-hard Republicans will vote Republican and die-hard Democrats will vote Democrat, regardless of the candidate. Single issue voters will vote for the candidate that is best for their issue. But for the rest of us, we need to choose candidates who we feel are best for the country and the only way to do that is a) know the facts about the candidates not the spins often sold by political commentators, b) know all the available facts gathered through multiple politically neutral sources, and c) as new information is made available about the candidates, make an effort to update your impressions in light of the new information.

Podcast Episode: Why Donald Trump Seems Impervious To Bad Press

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