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Escalation of commitment refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby a group of people who have embarked upon a decision which is producing increasingly negative outcomes continue forward with their course of action despite the accumulating evidence of bad results.  This sounds ridiculous, but it is a very frequent pattern in human behavior.  It is worth casting our minds back 100 years to 1917 when the First World War ground into its 3rd year despite the deaths of millions of combatants on both sides. In economics, a very similar situation is described as the “sunk cost fallacy’: throwing away more and more resources because the idea of losing the time and money already invested is too painful to bear.  One sees this at casinos all of the time, when a punter keeps grinding tokens into a machine waiting for it to pay out.  One sees it in casino owners who build lavish follies with borrowed money even after the gamblers have all been fleeced or given up.  One sees it in institutional investors which will not give up on certain bankrupt debtors because the banks themselves will lose too much money.

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The reasons for escalation of commitment are manifold, but boil down to certain unpleasant fundamentals about human preferences and decision making. Changing one’s mind is difficult because it involves admitting an error. Additionally, it is more painful to lose something than it is pleasant to gain something (a dreadful dictum which explains so much of human behavior). Leadership norms punish seemingly inconsistent behavior more than bad results; if a leader admits a problematic course of action and changes it, they are more likely to be punished than if they just went ahead with whatever idiotic thing they were going to do anyway.

All of this is to highlight that people have an astonishing ability to lie to themselves when they have done a colossally stupid thing.  They will continue onward with such behavior in the face of rational evidence and will fall into certain tribal behaviors which make it even harder to escape the spiral of collapse.

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These factors make terrible decisions particularly dangerous. Historians are always looking back and exclaiming “How could they have kept on with this course of action?”

And, of course, there are counter examples and arguments. It is Impossible to ever reap the rewards of a risky investment if one abandons a project too hastily. Would Columbus have reached America if he had given in to the terrors of apparently endless ocean? Would Thomas Edison have persevered through all of those hundreds of unsuccessful filament materials to the electric lightbulb?  Yet some of those filaments glimmered or shone brightly for a moment.  The Santa Maria did not fall off a giant waterfall at the edge of the world but instead the sailors saw evidence of land.   Evidence should help us escape the dreadful escalation of commitment.

If a leader is behaving erratically, wickedly, and stupidly is it wise to ignore such behavior, in the belief that he will somehow correct himself?   If there is no coherent plan but merely bombast, corruption, and hollow stage-managed cheers, why would you choose to cheer along?

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Once you have invested enough effort in a bad idea or a terrible leader, it isn’t possible to escape.  Human behavior means you must follow…even if it leads to Changping, Verdun, or a bunker beneath Berlin.   If I learned anything from history class (or from my own failed business with a light-fingered dipsomaniac business partner) it is to be on guard for escalation of commitment early. Don’t go down with somebody else’s leaking ship or drink from their poisoned chalice.  Just because you made one bad choice doesn’t mean you have to make more.

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When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

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The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

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So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are.  I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them.  Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa).  The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table.  However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin.  They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry.  There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions.  The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.

Domestic Pig

As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful.  They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands.  Swine are omnivorous grazers.  Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.

Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters.  As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles.  A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources.  Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups).  Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner.  The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten.  Even domestic pigs can be dangerous.  To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”

So never ever do this with feral pigs you don't know well!

There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).

That’s a lot of pig butchering!  But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig.  There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet.  Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral.  It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.

A pig (Sus scrofa domestica) swimming in the Bahamas. (Photography by Eric Cheng)

My grandfather’s brother Cecil lived in a sprawling shack/cabin/compound on top of a mountain in West Virginia.  His grubby farmyard was inhabited by a melange of distant cousins, dogs, chickens, creatures, and sundry hangers-on.  When I was little, my parents and I visited there a few times to get cut-rate domestic animals for our own farm.

The first animals we bought from Great Uncle Cecil were a pair of small woodland-colored turkeys who looked like they had hopped out off the whiskey label.  They were caged when we got them–in hindsight, an ominous sign–but their beauty was very apparent.  I was turkey crazy and had been begging my parents for some turkeys when, suddenly, Cecil had a pair of turkeys he was willing to part with for next to nothing.

We brought them home and released them into the poultry yard, but they were quite different from fowl we had raised from chicks.   Upon hitting the ground, they instantly flattened down like infantrymen and, bobbing and weaving, sprang under the chicken house.  Occasionally a suspicious beak would poke out, but they had no interest in the corn I was waving.  From time to time, over the course of next week, we would notice a striped tail poking out of a rose bush or a russet shadow on the chicken house roof.  One day they were gone for good (although my mother claims to have seen the hen one last time, beyond the fields, flying up into a tree at the wood line).

The local wild turkey population had been depleted by hunting and farming and was thin on the ground, then, suddenly, wild turkeys began to flourish again.   Uncle Cecil’s feral turkeys clearly met up with partisans in the hills and brought much needed vigor.  There is a huge flock on my parents’ farm today—a moving testament to unvanquished spirit.

Freeeedom!

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