The psychology behind why Bush “stayed the course” in Iraq

Double or nothing.

One more hand.

Stay the course.

It doesn’t take a gambler to know that there are times when we all should walk away from a sunk cost — a deal gone increasingly sour — yet we don’t. We know we should stop playing, but are overcome by the tantalizing prospect that the next round will be the one that finally makes it all worth it.

What’s going on in our heads when we just can’t call it quits is called “escalating commitment,” and it explains both why American citizens (or at least the Bush administration) were reluctant to give up on the Iraq War, and why people lose on the game show “Deal or No Deal.”

Seriously, watch this expectant mom, Mary, lose a ton of money — at one point she could have walked away with $51,000 — on Deal or No Deal by giving in to the temptation of escalating commitment:


Escalation occurs when we compare our present value to previous, better values. Mary was offered a deal of $51,000 dollars earlier in the show. As the value of each subsequent offer decreased, Mary viewed each deal as a loss that needed to be made up, so she refused to take the money and run. She failed to consider each deal independently ($51,000 was a heck of a lot more than she had walking in the door); if she had, she could have taken the $51,000 and gone home happy.

Economics professors exploit this when they have their students do a dollar auction:

The rules are simple. The professor offers a dollar for sale to the highest bidder, with only one wrinkle: the second-highest bidder has to pay up on their losing bid as well. Several students almost always get sucked in. The first bids a penny, looking to make 99 cents. The second bids 2 cents, the third 3 cents, and so on, each feeling they have a chance at something good on the cheap. The early stages are fun, and the bidders wonder what possessed the professor to be willing to lose some money.

The problem surfaces when the bidders get up close to a dollar. After 99 cents the last vestige of profitability disappears, but the bidding continues between the two highest players. They now realize that they stand to lose no matter what, but that they can still buffer their losses by winning the dollar. They just have to outlast the other player. Following this strategy, the two hapless students usually run the bid up several dollars, turning the apparent shot at easy money into a ghastly battle of spiraling disaster.

But escalating commitment isn’t all fun and games. The author who explained the dollarĀ continues:

Theoretically, there is no stable outcome once the dynamic gets going. The only clear limit is the exhaustion of one of the player’s total funds. In the classroom, the auction generally ends with the grudging decision of one player to “irrationally” accept the larger loss and get out of the terrible spiral. Economists call the dollar auction pattern an irrational escalation of commitment. We might also call it the war in Iraq.

America is long past the possibility of some kind of profitable outcome in Iraq. Neo-con dreams of a quick, cheap victory, delivering democracy and peace and self-financed from Iraq’s own oil revenue, got us started on this misadventure. … And like the economics class, suddenly we were in the thing up to our necks, with only bad choices available at an ever-escalating cost.

This was written in 2007.

It would seem that anything developing over this lengthy a period of time would be overridden, at some point, by superior, conscious, deliberation. We should eventually be able to convince ourselves that a bad idea is, well, bad. But research has shown that some part of the escalating commitment phenomenon can likely be attributed to our reward system; our commitment can be likened to a miniature addiction.

Indecision by Shutterstock

Indecision by Shutterstock

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned a study that showed that voters’ levels of testosterone were affected by their candidate’s success or failure in the outcome of the election. Researchers speculated that testosterone levels rising and falling in response to voting could have an effect on participants’ decision to vote in subsequent elections. And this would make sense; it’s a lot easier to walk away from a slot machine if you lose your first three rounds, but being validated with a win or two releases a set of hormones (namely, dopamine), that make us want to find reasons to keep playing.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how so many Americans got sucked into the “stay the course; don’t cut and run” rhetoric of the Bush administration concerning Iraq. After initial success — the surge of testosterone when Saddam was toppled in 2003 — they were looking for expected, subsequent good news that was never to materialize. In doing so, they consistently failed to consider their present value (what we gained by simply pulling out then, or shortly thereafter) independently from all prior values, instead insisting on winning their proverbial dollar auction.

Like the lady on the game show, sometimes you get your $50,000 offer and you get greedy.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • caphillprof

    yes, but that is different from actively taking oneself out of the ability to win
    Subject: [americablog] Re: The psychology behind why Bush “ stayed the course” in Iraq

  • There is another explanation: Bush got everything out of Iraq that he wanted. That includes the wasted money and lives. The mission really was accomplished. Those who were supposed to profit, profited. Those who were supposed to suffer, suffered. That which was supposed to be broken, was broken. As Matt Taibbi so brilliantly summarized in “The Great Iraq Swindle,” the Iraq war was really an invasion of the US treasury, and no occupation in history was so successful. (Google it and read his whole article, if you have not already.)

  • GeorgeMokray

    “Psychological researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were the first to test and document the notion of ‘loss aversion’ – the idea that people are more motivated to avoid losses than they are to acquire gains. Loss aversion can explain quite a bit of human behavior, including behavior in areas such as finance, decision-making, negotiation, and persuasion.” (_Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive_ by Noah J Goldstein, Steve J Martin, and Robert B Cialdini
    NY: Free Press
    ISBN 978-1-4165-7096-7)
    Of course, the big machers could easily have been doing the big grift but the mass of Amurricans were convinced to go along and keep the course in part because of “loss aversion.”

  • nicho

    That’s why they call it “gambling.”

  • Sweetie

    There is no “or” involved. Mr. Green’s stuff is just an academic sideshow. It was all about the feeding trough.

  • But… but, weren’t the pots of gold supposed to be in the areas around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”

  • silas1898

    I also saw the opposite a couple of times. The leader (and other two) knew the Final question, but didn’t bet enough and lost.

  • lynchie

    Remember the lost $12 Billion in $100 bills. It is always about money, follow the money trail and you will find knowledge.

  • lynchie

    Oil revenue for Iraq estimated at 3 million barrels per day and growing to 8 million per day in 2035 making it the number one producer after Saudi Arabia.

    Now a Chinese company is going to purchase the rights in one field currently held by Exxon worth $50 Billion.

    Bush went in to prove he had balls and to get even for his daddy. The U.S. went in to plunder the oil fields and to keep the military budgets at an all time high. We stayed because the generals got their medals, huge combat pay and to be put on tv and get nice lobbying jobs when they decided to quit.

    One more question begs to be asked when you read the headline of this Post. Why is Obama staying the course. We are almost 5 years from him taking power and we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, still pissing our resources into two countries who despise us and all the while talking about cutting SS and Medicare for the poor and elderly and cutting taxes for the 1% and for corporations. That is what we should be talking about not Bush’s motivation, He is not bright enough to be motivated, he simply needs to be told what to do like he has his whole life.

  • With the Iraq debacle, there were many factors in play:
    – Dubya’s Oedipus complex.
    – Darth Cheney’s Halliburton ties, along with his shrewdness in knowing that Executive power is never more puissant than during “wartime.”
    – The GOP’s desire for war as a means to distract people from domestic issues.
    – The military-industrial complex desperately wanting not just to be locked into declining military budgets due to the end of the Cold War, but eager to have those budgets doubled or more.
    – The mass media, including all of the cable news networks desirous of the war-porn ratings bumps (true story: December 2001 when CNN was running commercials touting their ‘retired generals and former defense dept experts’ as commentators in the ‘looming threat from Iraq’, I turned to my wife and said, “We’ll be at war within months. Not because it’s necessary, but because CNN, Fox, and all the other news outlets want it to happen.”

    I’m not sure I buy this particular analysis though, that greed as loss-avoidance was the operative factor in why the American people kept being sold this phony bill of goods that withdrawing from a country where the war was essentially over represented ‘cutting and running.’ That was the convenient lie, to justify an open-ended occupation. Same thing with Afghanistan. The entire point was to make it so the wars never ended, so that defense budgets kept rocketing upward, even as everything else was cut to the bone. Add in the bonus of eviscerating every civil right and Constitutional protection (except for the 2nd Amendment) and we have everything Eisenhower was warning us against.

  • Mike Meyer


  • mirror

    I give up.

  • I suspect this is close to the truth. Iraq “reconstruction” meant that dump trucks full of money were being thrown around with little care or attention to how it was spent.

  • I admit, at the time of Bush the Greater’s invasion of Iraq, I never thought that his decision to bring the conflict to a quick end was entirely honorable. I thought, and still think, that Bush St. wanted his “splendid little war” where he could swoop in, beat up on a smaller country for a few days and then ride of into the sunset, rather like Grenada on a bigger scale.

  • dula

    One cannot expect Americans to quit while we are ahead now that we’ve been sufficiently brainwashed by decades of predatory Capitalism into believing that we must be willing to destroy everything around us in hopes of more profit. This is the American definition of ambition.

  • nicho

    Or it could be that the corporations in the MIC were just making so darned much money that they wanted it to go on. After all, Halliburton alone was making billions in no-bid contracts, and Blackwater was raking in the dough. You may be overanalyzing what was really happening. The only ones who were losing were taxpayers, future generations, and the cannon fodder provided by working-class Americans who were scammed into thinking they were “preserving our freedoms”

  • condew

    When you take this “escalating commitment” into the public sphere, other re-enforcers come into play; not just the psychology. If Bush had cut his losses, he would not have shown daddy how it’s done. He would have destroyed his own legacy. He would have plumbed new depths in approval as those who “knew it was the right thing” joined those who knew it was wrong in hating him. He might well have been impeached by his own party. All those downsides he richly deserved, and if he had endured them history might have looked at him more kindly.

    As it was, George W showed that George Bush Sr. was a far wiser man. When he could have been caught in “escalating commitment” and risked all the same downsides, he was wise enough to stop, and history looks at him with ever-increasing kindness.

  • caphillprof

    In recent weeks we have twice seen Jeopardy contestants snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In both cases they were comfortably ahead toward the end of the game when they hit on Double Jeopardy. In both cases, rather than bet a small amount so the if they lost their score would remain the highest, they bet an amount just large enough so that if they lost the double jeopardy question, they would likely lose the entire game. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. In both cases, the knew the Final Jeopardy answer but, because of their dumb Double Jeopardy bet, were unable to win the game. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid.

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