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Escalation of commitment

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals often persist unduly with unsuccessful initiatives or courses of action. To illustrate, some advertisements do not increase the sales or reputation of the products they promote. Likewise, initiatives that are intended to raise productivity sometimes impair rather than enhance performance. Unfortunately, managers and employees often persist with advertisements or initiatives despite these failures. This tendency to maintain these floundering pursuits-especially endeavors in which they have invested heavily-is called escalation of commitment, first defined by Staw (1976), or sometimes entrapment (Brockner, Rubin, & Lang, 1981& Brockner & Rubin, 1985& Rubin & Brockner, 1975),

The fallacy called sunken costs represents an example of this escalation of commitment (Staw, 1997). Suppose, for example, that individuals are informed they have already paid in advance, perhaps $1000, to travel to a resort, located on a tropical island, next weekend. However, they discover that, during this weekend, storms have been forecast. In addition, on the same weekend, they have been invited to a wedding, which they would unfortunately miss if they traveled to the island.

When asked whether or not they might cancel the trip, even if they could not recover their money, called a sunk cost, some individuals might agree. However, if then informed that, actually, they had paid $5000, fewer individuals would cancel the trip. In some sense, this answer seems irrational. Their decision should depend on which alternative they prefer-the trip or the wedding-regardless of the cost, which has already been paid.

Nevertheless, many studies indicate that individuals to pursue the alternative that is less desirable if they have invested resources in this pursuit (e.g., Arkes & Blumer, 1985& Brockner, 1992& Staw, 1976, 1997). Indeed, escalation of commitment is rife. National leaders continue to embark on wars to ensure that other soldiers had not died vain (Karlsson, Juliusson, & Garling, 2005) or attend events, such as plays, merely because they had purchased season tickets (e.g., Arkes & Blumer, 1985). Similarly, managers tend to maintain their regard for an employee who is performing inadequately if they had hired this person themselves (Schoorman, 1988). In other words, individuals tend to "throw good money after bad."

Several factors affect the likelihood that individuals show this escalation of commitment to floundering or undesirable alternatives. Individuals are especially likely to escalate their commitment, for example, if they are often anxious but seldom dejected (e.g., Moon, Hollenbeck, Humphrey, & Maue, 2003)

Explanations of escalation of commitment

Researchers have proposed several theories to explain the inclination of individuals to escalate their commitment towards undesirable alternatives if they have invested resources in these endeavors.

Mental accounting

Some of these explanations relate to the concept of mental accounting, in which individuals like to ensure all of their costs translate to benefits. For example, according to Arkes and Blumer (1985), individuals often apply the heuristic to avoid waste excessively. That is, they generalize this adaptive heuristic to contexts in which this principle should not apply.

Inference of commitment or ownership

Individuals might infer their commitment towards a goal or pursuit in which they have invested heavily (Minjung & Fishbach, 2008). That is, after individuals reflect upon the extent to which they have invested effort into some goal, they feel more committed to this objective. That is, they assume such investment reflects a previous decision to commit.

Likewise, such investment instills a sense of ownership towards a pursuit. As a consequence of this ownership, individuals perceive the pursuit as more valuable. That is, individuals to overestimate the value of something they feel they own, called the endowment effect (see Nunes & Dreze, 2006).

In these instances, individuals persist with the initiative not merely to maximize economic return, but to complete the goal. That is, goal completion alone becomes a key motive.

Indeed, Garland and Conlon (1998) showed that level of investment might not affect escalation of commitment. Instead, level of investment might be confounded with the extent that individuals have already progressed. As these researchers showed, when individuals felt the initiative had progressed considerably, they were more likely to demonstrate escalation of commitment. This finding is consistent with an extensive literature, highlighting that progress towards goals can maintain persistence.

Justification of behavior

Another set of explanations assume that individuals escalate their commitment to justify their past behaviors and choices (e.g., Brockner, 1992, Staw, Barsade, & Koput, 1995& Staw & Ross, 1989). When individuals escalate their commitment to an ineffective campaign or initiative, they are, in essence, implying the course of action is indeed appropriate. This implication indicates their initial choice or behavior was indeed justifiable.

Several motivations might underpin this need to justify their behavior. First, they might want to justify their behavior to someone else. That is, they want to be perceived as able to reach suitable choices. Rejecting a previous pursuit seems to compromise this credibility.

Indeed, as summarized by Karlsson, Juliusson, and Garling (2005), individuals are more inclined to show escalation of commitment when they feel the need to justify their decisions to someone else. However, this effect dissipates if the individuals feel the neglect of this wasted costs might be perceived unfavorably.

Nevertheless, escalation of commitment persists even when individuals do not need to justify their behavior to anyone else (Bobocel & Meyer, 1994). As a consequence, this need to maintain credibility cannot alone explain escalation of commitment.

Instead, individuals might also want to justify their behavior to themselves, perhaps to boost their self esteem. Alternatively, they might want to justify their behavior to themselves to experience a sense of consistency& otherwise, the choice to pursue and then reject some course of action seems inconsistent, which provokes negative affective states.

Consistent with this set of explanations, when individuals felt they were responsible for the decision to pursue some course of action, they are more inclined to show escalation of commitment when this endeavor fails (e.g., Brockner, 1992& Conlon & Park, 1987). If they were not responsible, they would not feel the need to justify their past choices.

Self affirmation and justification of behavior

Self affirmation--in which individuals reflect upon their key values and the activities they have undertaken to pursue these priorities--can curb escalation of commitment, but not in all circumstances. In particular, self affirmation can, in some settings, temper the need to appear rational, called self justification (see Brockner, Houser, Lloyd, Nathanson, Birnbaum, Deitcher, et al., 1986). That is, after individuals affirm their self, they do not experience the need to escalate commitment merely to justify the viability and rationality of a previous choice.

In particular, several studies show that escalation of commitment often represents the need to justify previous decisions as a means for individuals to demonstrate their rationality. To illustrate, individuals tend to escalate their commitment to failed courses of action only if they feel personally responsible for introducing the initiative or program (e.g., Bazerman, Beekun, & Schoorman, 1982& Brockner, Houser, Lloyd, Nathanson, Birnbaum, Deitcher, et al., 1986& Staw, 1976& Staw & Fox, 1977). Staw (1976), for example, showed that failed investments promoted escalation of commitment only when individuals felt personally responsible for the decision to invest. Similarly, Bazerman, Beekun, and Schoorman (1982) demonstrated escalation of commitment to ineffective employees was observed only in managers who assigned these individuals to their role.

Self affirmation theory offers researchers an insight into the factors that might curb this need to justify previous decisions, ultimately curbing escalation of commitment. According to Steele (1988), individuals are fundamentally motivated to affirm their worth and integrity--and this motivation explains a host of defensive reactions under stress (also Sherman & Cohen, 2002& Tesser, 2000). That is, in response to feedback or information that challenges their worth or integrity, individuals can engage in one of two approaches to maintain this perception of themselves.

First, individuals can attempt to trivialize or minimize the threatening information. They might, for example, challenge the source of any criticisms. Similarly, they might assume these criticisms relates to a trivial issue (e.g., Dunning, Leuenberger, & Sherman, 1995). Second, individuals can reflect upon alternative sources of worth and integrity. They might, perhaps, consider their core values and the behaviors that have undertaken to pursue these priorities (for evidence, Aronson, Blanton, & Cooper, 1995& Ditto, Scepansky, Munro, Apanovitch, & Lockhart, 1998& Kunda, 1990& Liu & Steele, 1986& Steele & Liu, 1983).

Accordingly, if individuals reach an unsuitable decision, they might reaffirm their worth and integrity by justifying this choice--which could manifest as escalation of commitment. Alternatively, they could engage in some other act that reaffirms their worth and integrity, obviating the need to escalate their commitment (Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky, & Ku, 2008).

Consistent with this proposition, Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky, and Ku (2008) did show that self affirmations can, at least in some circumstances, curb the escalation of commitment. In the first study, some participants completed a scale of self esteem--which, according to Steele, Spencer, and Lynch (1993), does provide individuals with an opportunity to affirm their worth or integrity. Other participants did not complete this scale.

Participants who did not complete this scale--or completed this scale but reported a low self esteem--were subsequently more inclined to show escalation of commitment on another task. Thus, when the value and worth of individuals is highlighted, escalation of commitment subsides (Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky, & Ku, 2008).

In a second study, a different manipulation was applied to affirm worth and integrity. Individuals specified which of six broad domains they value, such as religion, politics, aesthetics, or economics. Next, participants received questions about their most preferred value. A control group received questions about their least preferred value (for a review of similar procedures, see McQueen & Klein, 2006). Again, when individuals were encouraged to affirm the self, by focusing on their key values, escalation of commitment abated.

Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky, and Ku (2008) did, however, uncover a key boundary to this finding: when individuals affirm a value that is relevant to decision making, escalation of commitment is more likely to persist rather than decline. That is, information about their capacity to reach suitable decisions highlights the threat they experience when previous choices seem ineffective. As a consequence, escalation of commitment can increase.

Prospect theory

Another set of explanations invokes the concept of prospect theory, as proposed by Kahneman and Tversky (1979). One of the implications of this theory is that individuals, in general, prefer an uncertain loss to a definite loss. Suppose, for example, they need to choose between two courses of action. For one course of action, they are 50% likely to lose $1000 and 50% likely to lose nothing. For the other course of action, they are 100% likely to lose $500. If they undertook either of these actions many times, they would, on average, lose $500 on each occasion. In other words, the expected loss is the same, regardless of which option they choose. Nevertheless, most individuals prefer the uncertain loss.

Escalation of commitment, according to some scholars, might represent this tendency to prefer uncertain loss (e.g., Schaubroeck & Davis, 1994& see also Northcraft & Neal, 1986). If they do not escalate their commitment, the resources or investment is definitely squandered. If they do escalate their commitment, the resources of investment might eventually be rewarded.

Consistent with this premise, Northcraft and Neal (1986) showed that escalation of commitment diminishes if individuals are granted other choices in which to invest their money. In these instances, individuals do not merely choose between a certain loss and an uncertain loss. Hence, escalation of commitment seems to subside.

Rule governance

Hayes, Zettle, and Rosenfarb (1989) showed that individuals become less flexible--less sensitive to subtle and unexpected changes in the environment--when they invoke rules, rather than consider their intuition, to reach decisions. From the perspective of personality system interaction theory, intention memory--a cognitive system that invokes rational algorithms to reach decisions--rather than extension memory--an associative network that generates intuitions that align with core values--might be activated unduly.

In these instances, individuals often follow rules that disregard the future implications of their behavior. They instead follow their courses of action rigidly rather than respond appropriate to subtle cues, such as negative feedback. Consistent with this premise, Wong, Kwong, and Ng (2008) showed that a rational cognitive style, which corresponds to a reliance on rules or the activation of intention memory, does amplify escalation of commitment.

Construal of the future

Construal level theory could explain escalation of commitment (see Fujita, Henderson, Eng, Trope, & Liberman, 2005& Henderson, Fujita, Trope, & Liberman, 2006& Trope & Liberman, 2003). According to this theory, when individuals focus on the distant future, they tend to conceptualize events abstractly, devoid of tangible features. When they construe events abstractly, they focus on the key significance, rather than minute details. As a consequence, they often become more aware of the underlying objectives or benefits, rather than logistical complications (e.g., Eyal, Liberman, Trope, & Walther, 2004).

Thus, when individuals decide whether or not to continue with some initiative in the future, they might construe future events abstractly. Their attention will focus on the core benefits of this initiative, which increases their commitment to this endeavor (see Karlsson, Juliusson, & Garling, 2005, for a summary of this argument).

Thus, abstract construal of the future directs attention to possible gains and benefits, rather than probable losses or complications. Interestingly, this emphasis on gains, instead of losses, has indeed been shown to amplify escalation of commitment (Karlsson, Juliusson, Grankvist, & Garling, 2002),

Contextual determinants of escalation of commitment

As Karlsson, Juliusson, and Garling (2005) emphasized, most studies that examine escalation of commitment apply a variant of the protocol that was utilized by Staw (1976). In this paradigm, participants assume the role of a financial executive of a company that comprises two divisions. Some participants are informed they have allocated more money to one of the two divisions. Other participants are informed someone else allocated more money to one of these two divisions. In one condition, they are told this division has performed relatively ineffectively& in another condition, they are told this division has performed relatively effectively.

Their task is to decide which of these two divisions should receive more money next year. Typically, only if participants themselves had allocated more money to one division would they maintain this approach, even if this division had not thrived. Nevertheless, many factors affect the likelihood or extent of escalation of commitment. These factors relate to both the context and the individual.


In some instances, individuals are more driven towards maximizing gains, almost regardless of the costs that are incurred. In other instances, individuals are more driven towards minimizing costs, often regardless of the benefits they forego. They might, for example, choose to spend negligible money, even if this decision compromises their education, progress, or enjoyment (e.g., Higgins, 1997).

As Karlsson, Juliusson, Grankvist, and Garling (2002), showed, individuals are more likely to show escalation of commitment when they strive to maximize gains not minimize losses. When minimizing losses, individuals focus their attention on potential costs, and the potential costs of the existing, and floundering, course of action are more salient.

Ambiguity of outcomes

Parks and Conlon (1990) showed that escalation of commitment is more likely to prevail when the outcomes of this pursuit are ambiguous or uncertain. When individuals are informed of the precise outcomes that maintaining their existing course of action will generate, escalation of commitment seems to dissipate.

Divergence of opinion

The format of discussions can also curb this escalation of commitment. That is, if someone is assigned the role to challenge the perspectives of their team--to play the devil's advocate--escalation of commitment tends to diminish over time. Nevertheless, the efficacy of this approach was amplified only if members of the team genuinely adopt divergent opinions.

Greitemeyer, Schulz-Hardt, and Frey (2009) conducted a study that substantiates these arguments. In their study, participants first indicated which of two alternatives they prefer. They were then assigned to teams. In half of the teams, members did not all share the same opinion towards this decision. Furthermore, in half the teams, one person was encouraged to challenge the prevailing opinion of the team.

In this study, participants also received negative information about the prevailing attitude. Resistance to this information represents escalation of commitment. Heterogeneous teams, in which members did not all share the same attitude, showed less escalation of commitment if someone was assigned the role to play the devil's advocate.

Association between costs and benefits

According to mental budgeting theory, as proposed by Heath (1995), escalation of commitment might become more pronounced when the costs of some investment and the anticipated benefits do not correspond to the same scale. The costs, for example, might primarily revolve around time, whereas the potential benefits might revolve around money. In these instances, participants might not recognize that perhaps the costs of some investment have exceeded the likely benefits, and escalation of commitment is especially likely to prevail.

Nevertheless, Soman (2001) generated some conflicting findings. Escalation of commitment was more pronounced when time, not money, was the cost. Conceivably, the cost of time is less salient.

Individual determinants of escalation of commitment

Initially, researchers were unable to uncover consistent individual characteristics that amplify or inhibit escalation of commitment (Teger, 1980). More recent studies, however, highlight the role of individual differences.

Cognitive style

As Wong, Kwong, and Ng (2008) showed, a rational thinking style seems to magnify the escalation of commitment. That is, individuals who rely on thoughts that are conscious and analytic, devoid of affective content, show this tendency to commit towards ineffective courses of action. Rational thinking increases the likelihood that individuals assume their prior decisions were indeed viable.

Self efficacy and self esteem

Self efficacy, which reflects to which individuals feel they can achieve their goals, has also been shown to amplify escalation of commitment, as demonstrated by Whyte, Saks, and Hook (1997). Self efficacy might increase the likelihood that individuals feel their original decision must have been valid. Alternatively, self efficacy increases the likelihood that individuals feel they can derive benefits from their existing course of action. That is, self efficacy might amplify the illusion of control, which has also been shown to amplify escalation of commitment (Staw, 1997).

Several arguments support the proposition that illusion of control might amplify escalation of commitment. For example, individuals who strive to maximize gains, rather than minimize losses, are more inclined to experience an illusion of control (e.g., Langens, 2007). This desire to maximize gains also magnifies the escalation of commitment (Karlsson, Juliusson, Grankvist, & Garling (2002).

Knight and Nadel, (1986) showed that self esteem also magnifies escalation of commitment. Although distinct from self efficacy, similar mechanisms, such as illusion of control, could underpin these effects.


Moon, Hollenbeck, Humphrey, and Maue (2003) showed that anxiety, but not depression, amplifies escalation of commitment (see also Wong, Yik, & Kwong, 2006). Anxiety might increase concerns about credibility if the endeavor is discarded. Consistent with this premise, Schaubroeck and Williams (1993) showed that Type A individuals, who are often more sensitive to adverse feedback, also demonstrated more escalation of commitment.

In contrast, depression might curb self efficacy-which usually encourages undue faith in previous decisions or future control over these endeavors (Whyte, Saks, & Hook, 1997).

Expertise and training

Expertise in economics or training in sunken costs does not seem to affect escalation of commitment considerably. For example, MBA students were as likely as other individuals to show this tendency (Garland & Newport, 1991). Larrick, Nisbett, and Morgan (1993) showed that teaching students economic principles did not change responses to questions about sunken costs but did attenuate many other biases.

Related concepts

Escalation of commitment partly arises because people do not like to feel they have squandered resources. They like to feel their past courses of action were worthwhile. They like to justify past costs to themselves.

The same rationale is used to explain another interesting finding--the discovery that individuals are more likely to utilize the advice they receive if they paid a significant amount for this guidance. They are, for example, likely to buy more shares in a company that is recommended by an expert than perhaps they had originally planned if this advice cost $200 rather than $100. That is, individuals do not like to waste the money they spent& hence, they feel the need to utilize this cost in some way.

These arguments were substantiated by Gino (2008). For example, in one study, university students were first asked to estimate the year in which various events in US history unfolded, such as the Cuban missile crisis. They also specified a 90% confidence interval for each question. Second, they completed the questions again, but this time were granted an opportunity to receive advice--in particular, the answer that another student had offered earlier. Third, they received another series of questions, but similar in format to the previous set. Finally, these questions were presented again, but this time participants needed to pay money to seek the answer from another student.

Interestingly, if participants had not paid to seek the response of another student, they did not appreciably adjust their answer after they observed this information. If participant had paid, however, they did significantly adjust their answer after they observed this information.

The second study was similar, except participants always received the advice& they were not granted a choice. Nevertheless, they were still more likely to weight the advice that was expensive rather than inexpensive (Gino, 2008). The final study showed that payment did not affect the perceived quality of this advice.

Practical implications

To curb escalation of commitment, employees or managers should discuss some of the values they share. Then, each person should discuss why one or two of these values are especially important. This exercise, called self affirmation, will tend to curb escalation of commitment (Sivanathan, Molden, Galinsky, & Ku, 2008).

Sometimes, participants do not listen to consultants or trainers. Hence, the extent to which these consultants are paid should be, somehow, communicated to participants. For example, participants, before receiving this training, could be asked to comment on the quote. Participants listen to advice that is expensive (Gino, 2008).


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