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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.

After a protracted bidding war, some participants in an experiment spent more than $3.70 trying to buy one dollar. Researchers say the game was a small example of how ego entraps people in costly, losing ventures.

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 Psychology Bulletin.

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 design. 

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 could!” 

“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 mine.”

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 oversimplification.

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 added.

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 psychologists found.

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 help. 

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 wrote.

“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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