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This fallacy may explain why U.S. Republicans have made some unpopular decisions: U of T experts

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listens as Senate Republican leaders speak following the vote on the motion to proceed on health care legislation on July 25 (photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Have you ever sat through a long, boring movie even though it was terrible from the start? 

Then you may have demonstrated the same decision-making bias that helped motivate the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress to pursue unpopular policies last year. 

Writing in the Washington Post, Lior Sheffer, a U of T PhD student, and Peter Loewen, an associate professor in the department of political science and director of U of T's School of Public Policy & Governance, say politicians may be even more prone to the “sunk-cost fallacy” than ordinary people. That's the term for when people pursue a questionable course of action not because it's the prudent or rational choice, but because they have already invested time, energy or other resources into it. 

Sheffer and Loewen base their conclusion on research they did with experts at the University of Michigan, University of Antwerp and Hebrew University.

They conducted face-to-face interviews with hundreds of incumbent legislators in Canada, Belgium and Israel. The politicians were asked to fill out electronic surveys questioning decision-making about normal matters of policy, such as budgetary decisions and government loans. The researchers posed the same questions to thousands of ordinary citizens for comparison.

The results? “We find that politicians show a significantly stronger pull toward the sunk-cost fallacy than do ordinary citizens,” Sheffer and Loewen write in the Post. “We also find that politicians are no better than citizens in other ways.” For example, legislators are just as susceptible to “framing effects,” meaning they change their choices depending on whether a question is worded to emphasize potential gains or losses, even if the choices themselves don't change. 

The research, published recently in the American Political Science Review, points to “the role of psychological drivers in outcomes that we normally ascribe to cold interest-based calculus,” Sheffer and Loewen say.

“Perhaps when citizens elect representatives we should ask ourselves what reasoning skills those candidates bring with them to the table, and what kind of outcomes they are likely to produce as a result.”

Read the full analysis piece in the Washington Post