The Campaign Spot

Obama Supporters and the ‘Sunken Costs’ Theory

A couple of days ago in the Jolt, I wrote:

Part of me marvels that so many still find [President Obama] so likeable, and I can’t help but get the feeling that a lot of people are wedded to the notion that the first African-American president of the United States would be a healing, wise, visionary statesman, like the second coming of Martin Luther King, Jr., instead of an over-promising, under-delivering, self-pitying narcissist.

Stuart, one of my regulars, writes in:

I suspect the truth lies between these extremes. I suspect that people are wedded to two complementary notions: 

  • That the first African-American President of the United States would fall within one or two standard deviations from the mean of all Presidents — that is, he would be basically competent at the job and might even better than the average of all the white guys that preceded him, either because he would have something to prove or because an African-American might bring something new and different to the office.

  • That they themselves are capable of making good choices in political leaders and would therefore never vote for a complete incompetent.

The two notions are mutually reinforcing: no one wants to admit having made a colossal mistake about who they voted for, especially not if admitting that mistake also calls into question their own ideas about racial equality and affirmative action.  If part of their decision-making in 2008 was, “Let’s give the Black guy a chance: what’s the worst that can happen,” then admitting that what has happened is worse than they could have dreamed before the election is a threat to their belief system, because it’s evidence that letting skin color stand in for other objective criteria of experience and capability was a bad idea.

Yes, this is one of the challenges for Republicans in this cycle. I wonder if we’re seeing a bit of the “sunken costs” phenomenon on Obama, in that folks invested so much of themselves emotionally in him throughout 2007 and 2008 that they feel that the only way to make that emotional investment “pay off” is to stick with him until fortunes turn around for Obama (and the country).

Of course, as the Wikipedia summary notes, “Sunk costs greatly affect actors’ decisions, because many humans are loss-averse and thus normally act irrationally when making economic decisions.” Like a gambler convinced that his next hand will be a big winner, Obama fans may look at three years or more of disappointment, scandal, and economic hard times and be convinced that a big turnaround and payoff is just around the corner . . .


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