Sunk Cost, Commitment, Consistency and Covid

Common emotional and cognitive biases like sunk costs, commitment and consistency lie behind much of what’s wrong with Covid public debate in 2021.

Policy Sunk Cost

In mid-2020 all Australian politicians grossly overreacted to Covid. That overreaction locked them in to a particular policy pathway. Our Premiers portrayed Covid as more risky than it actually was, and applied extreme, illiberal policies. Those two decisions cut off any politically-feasible way to reverse course without some external event as an excuse.

Imagine if they had suddenly decided to open up, accept cases and some deaths among the vulnerable. The voters’ reaction would have been “But you told us Covid was a catastrophe! Why did we sacrifice in the first place then?” Voters would have seen the lockdowns, masks and police response as pointless. The error would be stark.

Our Premiers chose a draconian, panicked path that has become a sunk cost – an unchangeable expenditure of political capital. With it came the sunk cost fallacy:

Because we’ve spent all this political capital, we have to keep going to justify our previous actions, even if it isn’t working.

This is true whether or not politicians actually believe what they’re telling us about Covid. They must have a change of circumstance to change direction.

Our Premiers’ need for a public excuse reveals that they are either utterly amoral, or they are trying to stick with a prior commitment just to protect their egos. Either case leads to sunk cost fallacy.

Once the overreaction was obvious, the rational political choice would have been to sacrifice a few Ministers, bureaucrats, or even a Premier. And then to draw a line under the past political position. This is what every project manager and financially-literate person would say.

But that isn’t what politicians do. They always look for a change of circumstances to excuse their earlier error. A vaccine gives them that excuse to change policy without admitting policy overreaction, whether or not the vaccine is necessary.

Even by mid 2020 it was clear this was where things were heading.

And so here we are. We have to have a vaccine before Premiers lift all restrictions, lest voters see that 2020 policy was wrong, and that they were had. And our governments are ramping up coercion to do it, which locks them into the policy even tighter. It’s a sunk cost treadmill.

Along the way that sunk cost has risen exponentially. It was morally wrong. Its financial costs were a waste. Its damage to our political culture, to accountable government and to democratic trust is huge. Its debasement of the police and army will have effects for generations.

Media Commitment and Consistency

At the same time the dumb but fashionable media types dug their own hole. Obviously, they played the Covid panic card, regardless of what the data was saying. But more importantly, they promoted the vaccines and very publicly took those vaccines. They did both things without understanding the most basic clinical trial, efficacy and risk issues.

Now they are in a similar position to overreacting politicians. Journalists and commentators spend years simulating the possession of intelligence and insight, just to build authority and credibility. Their public commitment to Covid panic and to vaccines cannot be reversed without threatening that credibility.

The media is stuck on the twin peaks of commitment and consistency. Once they’ve made a commitment, their need for external credibility drives external consistency. And their need to maintain their self-image drives internal consistency. They’re stuck in a cognitive and reputational trap.

Despite many of their claims to the contrary, like politicians, media types don’t like to admit they’re fundamentally wrong. The less substance they have, the less likely they are to do it.

Covid-Vaxxer Ego and Consistency

Which brings us to the Facebook-filter crowd. We’ve all seen what I describe as fingers-in-ears-and-lalala. Midwits rushed to vaccinate and signal what they thought was their difference from the dimwits; only to discover that perhaps they weren’t so smart. Vaxxer’s remorse is setting in, and the best of midwits admit to it. But many, focused on maintaining their self-image, just can’t be inconsistent with their previous vaccine commitment.

So, when Covid-vaxxers meet efficacy and safety concerns, or see that all the Covid vaccines are still in clinical trial, that trials hadn’t identified all adverse event types when drugs came to market, and so on….well, fingers-in-ears.

This emotional and cognitive challenge can also explain the vitriol and misrepresentation directed at the vaccine hesitant. Both journalists and Joanne Average seek to reassure themselves by labelling people who research raw data and read scientific papers as redneck morons; while they themselves accept predigested media slogans as authoritative.

No-one likes people that remind them of their own failures.

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