Study upends wisdom on military interventions

 Dr Charles Miller of the ANU School of Politics and International Relations.
Dr Charles Miller of the ANU School of Politics and International Relations.
Monday 1 May 2017

Voters are willing to let their government continue military action if soldiers have died, but not if only money has been spent on military equipment, an award-winning international study has found.

The paper, based on research conducted by scholars from The Australian National University and Madrid’s IE Business School, has implications for policymakers worldwide.

“If you’re a politician, our findings are that if there is no good case for continuing a military conflict going forward, you can cut it loose without paying a penalty with voters for the costs already incurred,” said co-author Dr Charles Miller from the ANU School of Politics and International Relations.

“But people will treat those costs differently if people have died. This is interesting policy guidance, because theoretically people weigh costs and benefits differently.”

The article, published in the Journal of Peace Research, received the journal’s Nils Petter Gleditsch Article of the Year Award.

“The article engages an important concept in the academic and policy worlds, shows a high degree of methodological sophistication and rigour, and provides new evidence in support of an interesting proposition,” the jurors said.

Dr Miller says he was pleased by the recognition from the Peace Research Institute.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Dr Miller said of being informed about their win by co-author, Dr Benjamin Barber.

“I didn’t think people would pay much attention to it.”

The scholars wanted to test conventional wisdom that cancelling expensive military projects already underway is hard.

“That’s because of a mental shortcut also known as the sunk cost fallacy,” Dr Miller explains.

“The fallacy says people will persist with projects on which money or resources have already been spent, because they’re trying to recoup those costs.

“It’s said to be a way in which our rational processes deviate.

“For example, it’s considered harder to stop a military action if it involves lives lost, than to cut a troubled military spending project,” Dr Miller says.

“The theory is people treat money differently than lost lives.”

Dr Miller devised a hypothetical scenario to determine if the theory had merit.

Survey respondents were told Islamic terrorists had sparked a conflict in a Middle Eastern country whose government was allied to the USA. Respondents were assigned at random to four scenarios:

Allied government asks US for weaponry but the US takes no action;

The country asks US for troops, but the US declines to take action;

The third option is that the US has already committed equipment, while the US has sent troops in the fourth scenario.

Respondents are then asked if the US government should continue its support.

“We found it was harder to cut away from a project that’s already started, and harder when people have died,” Dr Miller said.

“We found that the idea that people want to keep going with a project because of the spent costs is not supported.

“They think ‘let’s cut our losses, we’ve spent the money, and go home’.

“But if soldiers have already died, people aren’t prepared to cut and return home.”

Dr Miller wrote the surveys and literature review in their study, while Dr Barber conducted analysis and graphed the data. Their first survey sampled about 1,500 people, the second around 1,300. The results were the same.

The article 'It's only money: Do voters treat human and financial sunk costs the same?' was published in the Journal of Peace Research, edition 53.

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