Monday, April 16, 2012

Escalation of Commitment

Barry M. Staw in his 1976 paper, "Knee deep in the big muddy: A study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action," described a recurrent phenomenon that causes humans to persist in actions in which the outcome is increasingly more costly than anticipated or nonfunctional.  It may be manifested in different ways:

1.  An employer hires a person who does not seem to be working effectively; and rather than cutting his or her losses by terminating the person, continues to give that person time to become productive.  (Can anyone not think of an example?)

2.  A company invests some money in a product, but sales do not live up to what was planned.  (The Edsel)

3.  A nation embarks on an economic policy that doesn't live up to expectations, like the bail-outs of the banks and General Motors.

4.  An army engages in a large-scale strategy that does not result in intended outcomes, but simply in heavy losses, like the French army in World War I (See Richard Watt, None Call It Treason.)

5. A nation initiates a war with another country, thinking it would be small-scale, and finding out that it results in more casualties, loss of material, and money than was expected.  (The Civil War, the Boer War, the Viet Nam War, Russia's war in Afghanistan, etc.)

As a matter of fact, this failure to accomplish the intended may result in more motivation.

There's likely to be several reasons why this pattern persists.  First of all, there's the self-defeating tendency to save face and not admit that it maybe was a bad idea.  This is coupled with the idea that just maybe, if we keep at it, then the result would be good and happy days would be here again.

Some policy reversals may be politically costly, and that influences their not being made.  Just imagine what would happen if a President launched us in a war, got Congress to go along, and then went back to them back and said, "My bad."  Whether he's a Republican or a Democrat doesn't matter; the other party would whack him without mercy or end.

We also have a lot of adages warning us against quitting: "Winners never quit; quitters never win."  These may be part of the problem.

Notice that some of these situations did come out ultimately successful; but at a cost greater than anticipated.  Others were total failures.  Why do the people involved not simply withdraw and accept it as a bad job?  A basic reason is that the piling up of costs or losses, whether human lives, money, or simply time, has the effect of changing the motivational basis from what it had originally been when the decision to do it had been made.  In other words, there is greater pressure towards continuing the course of action than there had originally been at the time of the start of the action!

So what can be done?  There's the high road: simply admit that the policy or practice was not a good idea.  In other words, admit that one was mistaken; that it was an error in judgment.  And accepting the consequences.

This is sometimes called "taking one for the team."

Or you can continue grimly towards the end, hoping that the course will ultimately turn in you favor.  This is more attractive if the costs of the poor choice are noncatastrophic.

Or, you can pussyfoot around, using some ploy to change the emphasis.  For exmple, get people to wear "WIN" buttons to lick inflation, raise a banner, "Mission Accomplished," re-issue the old Coke and style it "Classic Coke," take your clothes off, or launch into sufficient platitudes that people will be so glad that you've finally shut up that they stop caring about the failure.

When in question or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream, and shout;
Give them Hell, and fire a gun,
Hoist the signal up, "Well done."


  1. You make a good point in that this inaction in the face of failure can have devastating consequences. But how can it be avoided, given that so many people see the world with rose-colored glasses?

  2. As long as there is only one person there will be no problems. It's when the second person shows up that the problems start.

  3. I've always had problems with adages; they oversimplify life.