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Losing Face and Sinking Costs: Experimental Evidence on the Judgment of Political and Military Leaders

  • Jonathan Renshon

Abstract

Status has long been implicated as a critical value of states and leaders in international politics. However, decades of research on the link between status and conflict have yielded divergent findings, and little evidence of a causal relationship. I attempt to resolve this impasse by shifting the focus from status to relative status concerns in building a theory of status from the ground up, beginning with its behavioral microfoundations. I build on and extend previous work through an experimental study of status threats and the escalation of commitment, operationalized here as a new behavioral escalation task using real financial incentives and framed around a narrative of war and peace. I utilize a unique sample of high-profile political and military leaders from the Senior Executive Fellow (SEF) program at the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as a group of demographically matched control subjects, allowing me to evaluate the moderating effect of power on status concerns while also addressing typical concerns about external validity in IR experiments. I find strong evidence that the fear of losing status impedes decision making and increases the tendency to “throw good money after bad,” but that power aids decision making by buffering high-power subjects against the worst effects of status loss.

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