From: Dace (email@example.com)
Date: Fri 16 Jun 2006 - 17:10:24 GMT
This article from the World Science website accounts for a lot of posts
we've had on this list over the years.
Ego traps us in costly, losing battles, study finds
June 15, 2006
Special to World Science
A gambler plunges deeper into debt when crushing losses should scream to him
to quit. A banker keeps lending to someone who clearly won't pay back. A
leader pours troops and money into a war that has become a quagmire.
These scenarios have something in common: in each, someone is entangled in a
costly, protracted and losing venture. It happens quite often.
Now, researchers say they may have confirmed a key reason why people fall
into what the scientists call "costly entrapment in losing endeavors."
Their finding, based on a study of monetary choices, might be unsurprising
to many observers of human nature: it comes down to ego.
Threatened egotism, in particular, "makes people more prone to become
entrapped in losing endeavors," two psychologists wrote in the study,
published in the July issue of the research journal Personality and Social
Egotism, they wrote, is "the motivation to maintain and enhance favorable
views of self." Admitting an unwise decision threatens such views, they
added. To avoid that, people slog ahead with failed courses of action
despite mounting losses.
The study consisted of four experiments on college students. In each, the
participants received some cash, and an opportunity to gamble or play it in
games of skill or luck. These games were mostly losing propositions, by
Some of the players were also subjected to vague put-downs, or "ego
threats." These students, the researchers found, were likelier to plunge more and more money into the game, and lose it. "Individuals commit more to a losing course of action when their ego involvement is higher," the researchers wrote: for these hapless players, personal affronts transformed the games into ego battles.
Since the experiments involved financial choices, it's unclear whether the
findings apply to other human behaviors, such as war, one of the
psychologists said. But "in principle, absolutely" they could, added the
researcher, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla.
Asked whether they could even be applied to assess a specific conflict-such
as the Iraq war, called a "quagmire" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs
magazine-Baumeister declined to step into that inflamed debate.
"I don't think I should" try to evaluate that, he wrote. "But someone else
"Military decision making has a long history of error, bias, and immense
cost," he wrote elsewhere in the message. "It is a sort of hobby-interest of
In their paper, Baumeister and co-author Liqing Zhang of Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh, Penn., suggested other applications of the
findings, in economics and political science. Economists intent on
forecasting economies traditionally assume, for simplicity, that people act
strictly rationally. But recent research suggests that can be an
For instance, new bank managers are more likely to pull back on problem
loans than their predecessors-whose egos are often at stake because they
approved the loan, Baumeister and Zhang wrote.
The students' choices similarly suggest "rationality can be at least
somewhat subverted by messy subjective factors, such as egotism," they
In one game, students were given $5 to optionally gamble in a drawn-out luck
game. Some of them also received what was presented as some friendly,
pre-game advice from an experimenter: they might want to back out, they were
told, if they were the type who "chokes under pressure."
Although the experimenter didn't actually say the player was this type of
person, those who received the tip played and lost more money, the
A second game was a difficult jigsaw puzzle with an unreasonable time limit.
Players could buy extra pieces as time passed, if they thought this might
A third game was to bid competitively to buy one dollar, on condition that
both bidders would lose whatever they bid whether they won or lost. This
creates a mini-quagmire: "one is first drawn in by the opportunity to get a
dollar for less than a dollar, but as the bids rise, one is pulled along
each time by the reluctance to come in second place," the psychologists
"Ego-threatened" players, they reported, bid and lost $3.71 on average
trying to buy a dollar; some lost their whole $5 allotment. The other
players didn't shine either, but they managed to contain their losses to an
average of $2.46.
The ego threats varied by experiment. In two setups, including the auction,
students were told before the game that they had flunked a creativity test.
Although creativity had little to do with the game, the results were
similar, the researchers wrote: "greater entrapment and greater financial
loss resulting from ego threat," no matter the type of game and ego threat.
Baumeister and Zhang observed that some researchers might demur with their
conclusions, and say the results actually reflect a form of rationality.
That is, people might rationally opt to spend money to preserve their egos.
But this seems unlikely, they added, because if this was the tradeoff
players counted on, it didn't work: they in fact lost both money and face.
"They felt doubly bad about themselves, first for enduring the ego threat and second for losing their money."
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