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Cognitive dissonance and sunk cost: the psychology of seeking asylum

By the time asylum seekers get on boats, it’s often too late. EPA/Tubagus

With its revamped Pacific Solution, the Australian government has decided to make the choice to take a boat to Australia more horrendous in its implications, by increasing the likelihood of disasters at sea, and then punishing those who manage to survive the crossing.

But nothing has been done on two critical fronts – addressing the conditions that create refugees; and providing alternatives that break the incentive cycle promoted by the government and opposition, and facilitated by the people smugglers.

As the child of refugees who survived through the venal self-interest of people smugglers two generations ago, I am particularly aware of the contradictions involved.

The application of some cognitive theory and economic choice theory may help understand what is really going on; and why government and opposition are playing a doomed game they cannot win.

Cognitive dissonance and sunk cost

The concept of cognitive dissonance may be helpful in understanding the social psychology of asylum seekers who have entered the smuggler chain. This approach also throws light on the policy assumptions of government about the ways in which smuggler “business models” may be most effectively disrupted, thus interrupting the flow of asylum seekers to Australia.

Cognitive dissonance has been described as the “mental discomfort provoked by trying to believe two mutually contradictory propositions”. More strictly, it refers to the emotional investment people make in a particular belief, their tendency to try to line up belief and behaviour when the dissonance between them becomes salient. Somewhat counter-intuitively, beliefs will often adapt to justify behaviour, though interventions focused on the disjunction between behaviour and belief can “force” the process in the opposite direction.

In parallel to this cognitive state, there is what game and argumentation theory refers to as the “sunk-cost error”. This is the supposed irrationality of the observed tendency for people to stick with a behaviour even when it appears increasingly unlikely to produce the desired outcome or is very dangerous, and the original cost cannot be recovered no matter what their decision.

The psychological journey

Put this together in a simple narrative. A young man realises or is told by trusted others (family, senior community people) he is in mortal danger, so his family invests money in “buying” him an escape. Those who pick him up tell him he has no other option than to obey their instructions at every point.

His self-concept has been modified in a number of ways. He carries the responsibility for the positive outcome of his family’s investment which may be all they have. At every step, the smugglers “prove” they are trustworthy, thus reinforcing the self-concept of the individual as a survivor, an identity increasingly elaborated as that of an “asylum seeker” (though this may not be clarified until much later in the process).

He reaches the penultimate point in the voyage – Indonesia, probably – and his “objective” identity (in the form of papers) is removed or demonstrated to be no longer valid. His emotional investment in trusting the asylum seekers is huge, and every day his behaviour reinforces his new identity. He has no other trusted or credible sources of information. His heightened anxiety level will not allow him to modify his behaviour. In his mind, his survivor status now depends totally on the smuggler.

There are no accessible and testable competing sources of information that can reduce the anxiety through offering alternative pathways, other than those that would immediately “lose” the value of his family’s sunk investment.

The Australian government’s now even more corrupted Pacific Solution asks why he would not abandon the trip and apply to the UNHCR. Such a policy misses two features: the massive acquired anxiety resulting from months of managing cognitive dissonance; and the fact people will not acknowledge that their investment of money and time is a sunk cost.

Psychological interventions

So how can we help change asylum seeker behaviour?

First, we must accept that sunk cost is a factor which smugglers depend on for power over, and retention of, their clients. Recognition that the cost is lost will be a necessary but insufficient part of any intervention strategy.

Asylum seekers have a massive commitment to the belief that the sunk cost is not lost. The more the government messes with its policy, the clearer the balance skews towards the side adopted by the asylum seeker rather than that desired by the government.

A variety of interventions can address the cognitive dissonance problem. These include countering information from a credible source; providing a rational argument for behavioural change based on desired outcomes; and tapping the moral values of the asylum seekers. (Interestingly, The same dynamics could work on changing Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers).

The intervention is most useful where individuals are addressed in groups, when there is widely available accurate and positive information, and where they are induced to proselytise the desired changes to their peers.

This kind of approach can change behaviour remarkably quickly. False information that reinforces anxieties can have the opposite effect. However the effectiveness of the intervention (which is aimed at limiting the predisposition of asylum seekers to trust smugglers by getting onto unsafe boats) requires real changes so that the information provided is credible and accurate, sufficient to overcome the sunk cost factor.

What next?

There are three real changes that could be made that would help break the psychological cycle.

First, asylum seekers must be able to apply for refugee status while still in their home country, before they get tied up with people smugglers.

Second, a major Australian processing centre should be set up in Indonesia. If people fail this process, they will have little chance of any better outcome risking life and limb on the sea to arrive unlawfully in Australia. A small number will be tempted, but they will be paying premium rates and face almost guaranteed rejection and return.

Third, during waiting periods, intensive English programs, health checks and other identity building investment should be made available by government. Every effort should be made to ensure asylum seeking arrivals are in the best mental and physical shape to re-adjust to Australia, rather than ensuring they are in the worst shape we can produce.

A rational response

A debate that grapples with each element of the asylum seeking process is crucial.

The Houston panel went part of the way, but left many fragments unresolved. The government and opposition have plans that will only intensify the catastrophe under way. The Greens have also avoided key questions.

Now is the time to systematically, rationally and with a “least worst outcome” mindset, move on these issues. Calm, humane, intelligent policy trumps panicked, inhumane, dumb reactions every time.

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