Republican Democrat
A file photo of the DS-200 optical scanners used to count the votes of Fairfax County primary voters seen at Centreville High School, during the Super Tuesday primary voting in Centreville, Virginia, March 1, 2016. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the sage Morpheus offered the neophyte Neo a bargain. He presented two pills- one red, one blue. One brings unforgiving awareness, anxious liberty, and the cruel truth of reality. The other brings lavish sanctuary, serene contentment, and the idyllic obliviousness of trickery. Morpheus famously put his bargain thusly:

"After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Once one chooses the red or blue pill, the choice is irrevocable."

It’s hard not to wonder if everyone in America hasn’t participated in that same bargain and swallowed one pill or the other. Not just in America, really, but the entire planet. Whether they picked the red or blue pill is incidental- and it’s irrevocable.

Nowhere is this more evident than the fervent and acrimonious gulf between those that support and those that oppose Donald Trump’s presidency. If you support the president, he can do no wrong. If you oppose the president, he can do no right. There appears to be no middle ground. And never shall the twain meet.

A lot has been said about the partitions that characterize today’s political landscape. They have been explained as sociological epiphenomena, captured by demographics like age, gender, race, ethnicity, and geography. Simply put, this thesis states people that are like other people believe and think differently than people who are not like other people. If one is similar to another, they tend to have things in common- not too surprising.

Other explanations credit or blame the internet for making accessible profuse and often profane sources of information and opinion. Yes, there’s way too much-unverified material making its way through the conduits. But at last check, democracy should have no bounds upon that which is shared with its denizens. We’re entitled to gather facts, form opinions, and shout them from any soapbox—literally or figuratively—we can climb.

Still, others would argue that a creeping malaise about public institutions and public servants is at the root of these disunions. That’s an effect, not a cause. This discontent has been building for three decades.

The elephant in the room is not sociological, technological, or even political. It is psychosocial. Extensive research demonstrates that once one has committed themselves to a course of action, they continue upon it, even when evidence shows that choice was, well, mixed, at best. This is known as escalation of commitment.

Escalation of commitment is a behavioral and belief pattern that can influence individuals and, importantly, collectives. It occurs when facing progressively undesirable results from a decision, action, or investment. Yet that decision, action, or investment endures nevertheless. People cling to behavior or belief as opposed to adjusting course. The behavior or belief might be patently irrational or dysfunctional, but as opposed to backing off, we double down, pledging even more resources to our choices.

Social psychologists and economists often use the term sunk-cost fallacy to capture why people increase financial, reputational, and other resources to a decision, despite that decision’s evident flaws. This is the "sunk cost.” Even when evidence suggests the costs exceed the benefit, there’s no going back. People commit, and stay committed.

Think of escalation of commitment and sunk cost as equivalent to the proverbial caution of "throwing good money after bad" or "in for a penny, in for a pound.” Imagine a start-up company. An entrepreneur put together a business plan, secured a loan, and launched a venture- the American Way. That entrepreneur touted their ingenuity to family and friends, maybe even raising funds from them. They maxed out credit cards and temporarily abandoned their families to grow the business. They devoted their very fiber to making this venture work. But, twenty-four months out, none of the projections are realized. The business is hemorrhaging money. The bank was knocking at the door.

There was no data, financial or otherwise, that light lies around the corner. Yet that entrepreneur walks brazenly into the bank to ask for an extension of terms because they just need a little more time. Just another six months, and another million dollars, please. They are certain that other investors will understand the complex situation. That enterprising fellow has, with all good intentions, asked for a “stay” because he can’t quite summon an admission of being wrong. He wanted to be right, but he was wrong.

American flags fly on National Mall as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Now imagine a devotee to President Trump or, inversely, an opponent. Doesn’t’ matter which. Once committed, they’re committed. It’s irretrievable. Gone is the possibility to apologize or utter those two most difficult of three-word sentences: “I was wrong” and “I am sorry.” Too much lawn has been mowed to turn back now. At work and with family, good folk have expressed their sympathy. Sometimes stentoriously. Sometimes morally. Sometimes venomously. Always with conviction. They’ve offended co-workers or mothers and brothers with even the slightest sentiment of devotion one way or another. Family dinners have been ruined. One word is polarizing these days. You’re with Mr. Trump or not. There is no intermediate position. It’s a taxometric bargain, just like Morpheus said. Red or blue.

In 1956, Leon Festinger and colleagues’ penned a book titled When Prophesy Fails. His team followed a doomsday cult to their pronounced end of days. When the devastation they had foretold didn’t unfold, as opposed to denouncing their beliefs, they discovered a way to reconcile their behavior—which included leaving their families, yielding their wealth, and alienating loved ones. They would not surrender their beliefs, regardless of the consequences. They had to live with what they’d done, with what they’d said. They claimed that instead of being mistaken, their devotion to the aliens who were intent on invasion and destruction had saved humanity. Even when faced with irrefutable proof that they were wrong, they found a way to reconcile their behavior.

The psycho-social implications of reversing a course of action are enormous. Every shred of evidence shows that people have great difficulty admitting they were mistaken. Doing so threatens self-esteem, something people will go to great lengths to protect. Egos are the most fragile of things; they are to be protected at all costs. Admitting mistakes also entails a public proclamation of error, which equally and socially bruises that cherished ego.

Such is the case today.

Today we want—nay, we insist—on believing what we believe, regardless of reasoned data. Those that support or oppose a cause are equally jingoistic. All parties are participants in the very conspiracy that they have sworn to demolish. There are no demographics here. To say so pits one against another; a toxic element of the ancient strategy to “divide and conquer”. Technology doesn’t explain this division. Indeed, technology’s reach was heralded as the reconciliator of that. The more information the public has, the better, or at least that’s the herald of the last 250 years. The malaise of the moment is a symptom of what ails us.

The root cause is that we, person to person, devoted ourselves to an ideological path that there’s no turning back from. From a psychosocial perspective, we can’t see anything but that which we’ve prepared ourselves to see. We have bought a ticket that can’t be refunded. It doesn’t make any difference what the reports say, or what the record holds or what the facts are, we’re locked in. As Paul Simon sings: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Morpheus didn’t give us any choice. Red. Blue. Interpret the colors as you want. But we made the decision which pill to swallow. And we, all of us, are suffering the consequences.

James R. Bailey is professor and Stacy and Jonathan Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business.