"The Bazerman Effect"

Why is it so hard to throw in the towel and admit defeat when we're on the losing end of a mighty struggle with a really BAD painting?

The "Bazerman Effect" explains how, when we're in a deep hole, we just cannot seem to stop digging.

Every artist I know has faced the thorny problem of throwing away their precious time, money and energies trying to save a painting that is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot ever be saved.

Here's some serious insight as to why we do this over and over again.

Note that I have illustrated this post with a collection of compellingly bad portraits from MOBA which began in a humble basement (pictured below):

"Know what you like, paint how you feel, and show it at The MOBA."

A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.

I’ve worked on paintings that are fundamentally flawed and the worse it gets, the harder I try to save it.

The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.

A cross-gender interpretation of the daVinci classic.

We’ve all experienced the pervasive pull of investing our time, energy and money in a particular project or poured our energy into a doomed relationship, it’s difficult to let go even when things clearly aren’t working.

As difficult as it can be to admit defeat, however, staying the course can be totally irrational.

A work of undisputed tenderness which places the spiritual above the physical through careful disregard for details of the human form.

Independently, each of these two forces – prior commitment and aversion to loss - has a powerful effect on us. But when the two forces combine, it becomes much harder to break free and do something different.

Here’s a great example:

The compounding effect of prior commitment and aversion to loss is most evident in this experiment that Prof. Max Bazerman does in his negotiation class at Harvard Business School.

On the first day of class, Bazerman announces a game in which he offers up a $20 bill for auction. Everybody is free to bid; there are only two rules. The first rule is that bids are to be made in $1 increments.

The second rule is a little trickier. The winner of the auction wins the bill, but the runner-up must still honour his or her bid while receiving nothing in return.

Careful placement of Christmas poinsettias adds an Easter Island element to this remarkable portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln....a painting that could have changed the course of the Civil War.

At the beginning of the auction, the hands shoot up quickly, with a flurry of bids following. As Bazerman describes it, “The pattern is always the same. The bidding starts out fast and furious until it reaches the $12-$16 range.”

At this point it becomes clear to each of the participants that he or she isn’t the only one with the idea of winning the $20 for cheap. Everyone but the two highest bidders drops out of the auction, and without realizing it, those two students are locked in.

Up to this point, the students were looking to make a quick dollar; now neither one wants to be the sucker who paid good money for nothing. This is when the students become committed to the strategy of playing not to lose.

The motion, the chair, the sway of her breast, the subtle hues of the sky, the expression on her face -- every detail combines to create this transcendent and compelling portrait. This is my personal favorite from the MOBA Collection.

Like a runaway train, the auction continues, with the bidding going up to $18, $19, and $20.

From a rational perspective, the obvious decision would be for the bidders to accept their loses and stop the auction before it spins even further out of control. ..right?


The students are pulled by both the momentum of the auction and the looming loss if they back down – a loss that is growing greater by the bid.

The two forces, in turn, feed off each other: Commitment to a chosen path inspires additional bids, driving the price up, making the potential loss loom even larger.

Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.

And so students continue bidding: $21, $22, $23, $50, $100, up to a record of $204. Over the years Bazerman has conducted this experiment, he has never lost a penny (he donates all proceeds to charity).

Regardless of who the bidders are – college students or business executives attending a seminar – they are ALWAYS drawn in.

Now you know that the all-too-human irrational fear of loss linked to the time & energy already poured into a project makes you continue to squander EVEN MORE of your time, money and energy into a lost cause...

...so maybe you can stop the insanity quicker now that you know you've slipped into the infamous "Bazerman Effect?"

And this is just art we're chatting about - the Bazerman insight applies to everything; like continuing a losing war, tossing huge amounts of money into badly managed businesses and standing there as you watch your stock portfolio tank.



Enzie at World Market Portraits said...

Karin, what a wonderfully interesting post!
I guess overcoming and admitting defeat means the ability to accept that we are not perfect and are capable of making plenty of mistakes.

My Painting Studio said...

In the studio - where time is money - I have done this insane thing more often than I care to admit.

When I stumbled across the "Bazerman Effect" it seemed a good explanation.

Shortly after posting this, I finally tossed out a bad painting that has been frustrating me for too long.

It felt good.

Christy DeKoning said...

Personally, my favourite is "Sunday on the Pot With George" - now THAT is a masterpiece lol. Thanks for the reminder to lighten up and chuck out the bad before it gets worse!

Dar Presto said...

I'm taking baby steps in training myself to give up on lost causes. I have decided that I can turn off or walk away from a really bad movie or book.

Kimber Scott said...

I'll give up on a painting after I'm half blind and on the verge of total despair. Sometimes, I have to be told to stop because I'm just so upset. What's weird is if, years later, I happen to discover the painting hibernating in the back of a closet, I'll look at it and think it looks pretty good! "Why didn't I finish this?" I wonder.