That sinking feeling

SinkholeI’m going to have to go MTAS cold-turkey if I am going to be able to reclaim my life. (I’m lucky to have the option, of course).

There are various petitions going around at the moment, one of which calls for the resignation of the architects of MTAS. I originally thought that a bit draconian and that it was aimed at the wrong target anyway. MMC is the problem, MTAS is just a symptom. However, I do now think those involved in designing MTAS should resign, and here’s why.

Have you come across the concept of “Sunk Costs”? You have, even if you don’t know it. A sunk cost is money that has already been spent, it is money that can never be recovered. When you’re throwing good money after bad, then the bad money is your sunk cost. When you cut your losses and run you leave your sunk costs behind. Or take them with you if they are student loans, of course.

In this case, the money that the government has invested in training UK doctors is a sunk cost.

Elizabeth Paice (dean director at the London postgraduate medical deanery and chair of Conference of Postgraduate Medical Deans) was reported on the 16th of March as saying that to pull be plug on MTAS would be “a huge waste of time and NHS money”. She’s referring to sunk costs, but interestingly she doesn’t appear to get that. This is not a surprise though.

You see, the scary thing about sunk costs is that it is much harder to walk away from your own sunk costs than it is to walk away from – or move on from – those created by other people. Sunk costs don’t just represent a financial investment. Sunk costs also represent an emotional investment. In this case, Ms Hubris has a political, professional and reputational investment in the whole hideous thing, as have others of those involved. When you have that much tied up in previous bad decisions, you end up being in denial, as any self-help book will helpfully explain. You are in – as the jargon has it – a “high responsibility position”.

In your personal life no-one else can take the decision for you. In commercial and public life someone else can take that decision, and very often someone else has to. This is because, if it is your fault, you will tend to continue throwing good money after bad. You ego, or your denial, won’t let you do anything else. Let me quote from some academics (van de Heijden et al) on the subject, fortunately this time they write in reasonable English:

Straw and Ross showed that the tendency of high-responsibility individuals to escalate commitment was particularly pronounced when there was some way to develop an explanation for the initial failure, such that the failure was viewed as unpredictable and unrelated to the decision-maker’s action (for example, the economy suffered a setback).

Bazerman et al showed that groups who made an initial collective decision that proved unsuccessful then allocated significantly more funds to escalating their commitment to the decision than did groups who inherited the initial decision.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I believe that the architects of MMC and of MTAS should resign. It is not because they have f**ked up, (though they have). It is because new brooms sweep clean. We will only get decisions about MTAS – and about MMC for that matter – which are based on the future and not on the past when those originally involved have gone.


van de Heijden, K., Bradfield, R., Burt, G., Cairns. G., Wright, G. (2002) The Sixth Sense: Accelerating Organizational Learning with Scenarios. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. Chichester.

Straw, B.M. and Ross, J. (1978) Commitment to a policy decison: a multi-theoretical perspective. Administrative Science Quarterly 23: 40-64

Bazerman, M.H., Guiliano, T and Appelman, A. (1974) Escalation in individual and group decison-making. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 33: 141-152

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2 responses to “That sinking feeling

  1. The “Sunk Cost” of lives and money that Bush and Co. have spent in Iraq is one of the reasons they find it so difficult to walk away from that conflict. Interesting how basic concepts like this one apply to so many different subjects.

  2. You are bang on the money, hmh. In fact, re-reading that piece with Bush and Blair in mind is chillingly depressing. Another reason why democracy is the system of government that sucks the least. Maybe next time we’ll get them out…

    A depressingly illuminating comment, and thanks for making it.

    Aphra.

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