Auditions, Effort Justification and Sunk Costs

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I have mentioned before (here and here) Rolf Dobelli’s catalogue of common thinking errors in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly. Once again, I find myself getting distracted from his purpose of how to avoid the distorting in one’s own thinking onto ways in which how exploiting the error in others can be useful for choral purposes.

Effort Justification is a form of cognitive dissonance whereby we value something for the amount of effort it has required from us to achieve it rather than for the actual difference it makes to our lives. It also gets called the ‘IKEA effect’, after the way that we like furniture that we have assembled ourselves more than equivalent furniture bought ready-made. The more of ourselves we have invested in something, the more are committed to it, and this may be quite out of proportion to what we’d think of it seen from the outside.

Now, the thing that leapt to mind here was the way that auditioned choirs seem less often to report the kind of problems with intermittent attendance than you hear about with open-entrance choirs. I’m sure the self-image of such ensembles would account for this as the result of the auditions identifying the more ‘talented’ singers who are therefore inherently also the more dedicated.

And I’m sure this is part of the dynamic, though I would reverse the causal relationship between skill and dedication - the more ‘talented’ singers have become good at what they do as a consequence of their application, rather than their application being a consequence of a pre-determined ‘gift’.

But the notion of Effort Justification suggests that by requiring people to undertake an audition, you actually increase the dedication they are likely to bring to the choir. The more people experience the audition as something that requires them to step up to the mark, to give of themselves, to make an effort, the more likely they are to be committed to the choir when offered a place. Indeed, this suggests that the supremely skilled people who find the audition easy will end up less committed than those who find the process daunted. The most dedicated choir members will be those who were only just good enough to get in.

If there are also more people auditioning than places available, you also get the benefit of the Scarcity Error - the way people find things more valuable the less available they are. This may serve to enhance the value the supremely skilled singers place on the opportunity to sing with you. Although, to be fair, smaller ensembles are inherently more challenging to sing in, so their dedication to an elite group is probably for intrinsically musical reasons as much as the distortions of cognitive dissonance.

But does all this mean than open-access groups are doomed to a culture of poor attendance? Some community choirs do consciously cater for those who can’t commit every week but like to be able to come along and sing when they can, and that is an important amenity for those constituencies. But other groups are happy to accept all-comers, but still like to be able to build skills as an ensemble week on week. What do they do?

I wrote some years ago about strategies to make our rehearsals less missable, but Dobelli also has another useful thinking error we can use to our advantage. This one is the error of Sunk Costs - the inclination to persist with something simply because we have already invested heavily in it and to give up on it would feel like wasting all that investment.

The ‘investment’ may be financial, or time expended, or emotional commitment, but the point is that we value something in terms of what we have put into it rather than what it offers back to us. I am not advocating making choir an unrewarding experience(!), but as with Effort Justification your singers will perceive the same rewards as greater if they feel they have vested an interest in them.

Hence, the principle of Sunk Costs is like Effort Justification, but over a longer term. It is why it can be a good idea to collect subs a term in advance rather than on a week-by-week basis (‘I’m not missing rehearsal, I’ve already paid for it!’). It is why structured taster courses can be effective for recruitment - by the time people have invested six weeks of effort, even on a no-obligation basis, they will be more inclined to continue. It is why dedicated old-timers keep a choir going so valiantly when it starts to go down-hill, while newer recruits abandon it for a choir in a growth-phase.

None of this substitutes for actual content of course. If you’re not giving people a rewarding time making music, you’re never going to get any commitment in return, any more than spending more on a wedding makes a marriage more likely to last. But, given that people are going to be prone to these cognitive idiosyncrasies whatever you do, it makes sense to position your choir so that they act as a psychological tailwind rather than headwind.

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