concorde

James Surowiecki has a great article about why the Jets are sticking with struggling quarterback Mark Sanchez:

[T]he Jets have invested an enormous amount of energy and money in Sanchez, and, assuming that no one will trade for him, they are contracted to pay him $8.25 million next year, whether he plays or not….

In a purely rational world, Sanchez’s guaranteed salary would be irrelevant to the decision of whether or not to start him (since the Jets have to pay it either way). But in the real world sunk costs are hard to ignore. Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University who has spent much of his career studying the subject, explains, “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid.” This means that we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses—sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket. In business and government, the effect pushes people to throw good money after bad.

Jeff and I have a paper, Mnemonomics: The Sunk Cost Fallacy As A Memory Kludge, that offers a primitive theory of this “Concorde effect” as a response to limited memory. Mark Sanchez was hired years ago. At that time there was a rationale for why he would be a great QB for the Jets and hence he was paid a high salary. This rationale for his hiring has been lost in the mists of time but his salary is recalled perfectly. His salary encodes the rationale for his hiring – the higher the salary the better must have been the rationale for his hiring.  Even if we have forgotten the details, the rationale must have been good if Sanchez was paid a high salary. Therefore the higher the salary, the greater the chances of retention even when future events creates costs of retention.  This is the Concorde effect. As far as Mark Sanchez goes, mnemonomics does not do too bad a job.

But an obvious alternate theory rests on reputation:

“Taking the original decision-maker out of the picture and letting a fresh pair of eyes look at the pros and cons can help,” Arkes says. He points to a…study of a bank that found that loan officers were reluctant to acknowledge that loans they’d made had gone bad, whereas new executives were far more likely to take the loss and move on. Whoever becomes the Jets’ new general manager will have no personal or reputational investment in Sanchez, which should make it easier for him to be more objective, though he’ll still have to persuade the head coach and the owner.

There’s surely a lot of truth to this theory. But there is a countervailing effect too. Managerial turnover generates limited memory – who knows why the previous CEO made the decisions he did? If he was smart, it would be good to accord his decisions some respect and see them through before trying out new ideas. Perhaps the best CEOs understand this. From our paper:

For example, when John Akers stepped down and Lou Gerstner became C.E.O. of IBM in 1993, he was determined to “carry out a set of policies put in place by none other than the much-maligned Akers.” He was not “rushing to make significant changes in vision” but was “still following through on Akers’ two-year-old restructuring.” He believed that “IBM has yet to test fully many if the changes Akers put in place” and said, “I want to make sure the current system is implemented before we try any alternatives.” We interpret Gerstner’s decision-making as follows: Akers’ old plans were initiated using information known to him at the time. By the time Gerstner arrived, the direct information was lost but was manifested indirectly in the strategic plan he inherited. Hence, this generated a bias to implement the old plan.

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