What is Escalation of Commitment?

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  • In the realm of decision-making and human behavior, there exists a phenomenon known as the escalation of commitment. It's a concept that delves into the psychology behind our persistence in pursuing a course of action even when it's no longer rational or beneficial. Whether in personal relationships, business ventures, or everyday choices, understanding the escalation of commitment can shed light on why individuals sometimes find themselves trapped in unproductive or even harmful situations.

Escalation of Commitment: Why We Double Down on Failing Decisions

At its core, the Escalation of Commitment refers to the tendency of individuals or groups to continue investing time, resources, or energy into a failing course of action, despite evidence suggesting that it may be better to abandon it.

In other words, the Escalation of Commitment is a behavioral pattern where we continue pouring resources (time, money, effort) into a failing course of action despite negative outcomes. It's essentially the opposite of cutting your losses. We irrationally believe that by persisting, we'll eventually turn things around and justify our previous investments.

This commitment escalation often occurs when individuals become emotionally attached to a particular decision, project, or relationship, leading them to overlook warning signs and rationalize their continued involvement.

For instance, an individual may face the risk of escalation of commitment in various scenarios:

  • Deciding whether to inject additional funds to salvage a struggling start-up or to allocate resources elsewhere,
  • Choosing between providing further job training for an underperforming employee or opting for termination and hiring a replacement, or
  • Contemplating whether to invest in marriage counseling or pursue a divorce.

Have you ever continued reading a terrible book simply because you'd already invested so much time into it? Or perhaps poured more time and money into a failing relationship, project, or investment because you couldn't bear the thought of giving up after exerting so much effort? If so, you've experienced the escalation of commitment.

The escalation of commitment can can be observed in individuals and groups. Think of a company stubbornly clinging to a failing marketing campaign or a gambler convinced their next bet will win back all their losses.

While there are instances where it's prudent to allocate more resources to a failing investment, the term 'escalation of commitment' specifically refers to situations where objective evidence suggests that continuing with the investment is unwise, yet the individual persists in investing further despite this evidence.

Origin of the Escalation of Commitment

The concept of escalation of commitment was first introduced by Barry M. Staw in the 1970s through his research on decision-making processes. Initially observed in business settings, where managers persisted with failing projects to justify previous investments, the phenomenon has since been studied across various contexts, including interpersonal relationships, politics, and finance.

Factors Contributing to Escalation of Commitment

Several psychological factors contribute to the escalation of commitment:

  1. Loss Aversion: Humans are naturally averse to losses, often leading them to double down on failing endeavors to avoid admitting defeat.
  2. Sunk Cost Fallacy: The more resources invested in a project, the harder it is to abandon it. This is because we focus on the time, money, and effort already invested (sunk costs) and feel compelled to see things through, even if the future outlook is bleak. Giving up feels like admitting defeat and wasting those resources.
  3. Proximity to Completion: The closer a project is to completion, the more likely we are to see it through, even if it's failing. This can be due to goal substitution, where the desire to finish overrides the project's original goals. Regularly remind yourself of the original goals.
  4. Exogenous Explanations for Failure: Blaming setbacks on external factors (e.g., economic downturn) helps maintain a positive self-image and belief in the original decision, increasing the risk of escalation. Be wary of biased information processing that downplays internal flaws.
  5. Ego and Identity: Personal pride and identity can become intertwined with decisions, making it difficult to disengage even when it's objectively the best course of action.
  6. Self-Justification: We want to maintain a positive self-image and avoid admitting we made a mistake. By persisting, we try to convince ourselves and others that our initial decision was sound.
  7. Emotional Attachment: We may become emotionally attached to a project, relationship, or investment, making it harder to let go. This attachment can cloud our judgment and prevent us from making a rational decision.
  8. Social Pressure: Group dynamics can amplify commitment escalation, as individuals may fear social repercussions or feel pressured to conform to the group's decisions.

By understanding the factors that influence escalation of commitment, we can become more aware of this decision-making bias. This awareness allows us to make more rational choices by actively seeking disconfirming information, considering future benefits instead of sunk costs, and ensuring clear project goals remain the top priority.

Don't Double Down on Failure: How Escalation of Commitment Affects Managers

The escalation of commitment, or the tendency to persist with a failing course of action, isn't limited to personal decisions. It significantly impacts various management settings. For example, studies show that senior bank managers hold onto problematic loans they approved, even after evidence suggests they're bad investments. Interestingly, this behavior decreases when there's executive turnover, suggesting a fresh perspective can help break free from escalation.

Similarly, Wall Street analysts facing inaccurate forecasts about a company's earnings often double down on their predictions, further jeopardizing their accuracy and potentially harming their careers. This escalation behavior reduces their chances of winning prestigious awards that could lead to higher compensation.

Escalation of commitment even affects personnel decisions. Supervisors who initially supported hiring or promoting an employee are more likely to provide biased, positive evaluations later, even if the employee's performance doesn't warrant it.

Finally, professional sports teams also fall prey to this bias. The NBA illustrates this with teams often giving their top draft picks more playing time and longer contracts than their performance justifies. This can prevent the team from exploring other talent and hinder their overall success.

These diverse examples highlight the widespread presence of escalation of commitment in management and its potential for serious consequences. From financial losses in banking to inaccurate forecasts and poor personnel decisions, this bias can significantly impact different areas. Being aware of escalation of commitment and implementing strategies to avoid it is crucial for effective management across various settings.

Escaping the Escalation of Commitment Trap: Strategies for Breaking Free

The escalation of commitment trap is a common pitfall in decision-making, where individuals persist in failing courses of action despite evidence suggesting they should abandon them. Whether it's a failing project, a toxic relationship, or an unsustainable business venture, understanding how to escape this trap is crucial for personal and professional growth.

Recognizing the Signs

  • Acknowledging Emotional Attachment: Be aware of any emotional attachment to the decision or project, as this can cloud judgment and perpetuate commitment escalation.
  • Assessing Rationality: Step back and objectively evaluate the situation. Is continuing the current course of action truly rational, or are you being driven by past investments and emotions?
  • Weighing Future Prospects: Consider the long-term consequences of persisting versus cutting losses and pursuing alternative paths. Sometimes, short-term discomfort leads to greater long-term success.

Strategies for Escape

  1. Accepting Sunk Costs

    Sunk costs are expenditures that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. While it's natural to feel attached to these investments, especially if they've been significant, it's essential to recognize that clinging to them won't change the outcome. Instead, focus on the future and base decisions on prospective benefits rather than past losses. This shift in perspective allows for more rational decision-making, free from the burden of sunk costs.

  2. Seeking External Perspectives

    When we're deeply entrenched in a situation, it can be challenging to see it objectively. Seeking input from trusted individuals who are not emotionally invested can provide fresh insights and alternative viewpoints. Whether it's a mentor, colleague, or friend, their external perspective can help challenge assumptions, identify blind spots, and offer guidance on the best course of action.

  3. Setting Decision Criteria

    Establishing clear decision criteria is crucial for making informed choices and avoiding commitment escalation. Define specific metrics or thresholds that indicate when it's time to pivot or cut losses. For example, in a business context, this could involve setting financial targets or project milestones. By having predetermined criteria in place, you can make decisions more objectively and reduce the influence of emotions or sunk costs.

  4. Exploring Alternatives

    It's essential to explore alternative options and be open to pivoting if the current course of action is no longer viable. This might involve brainstorming new strategies, seeking out different perspectives, or considering previously dismissed alternatives. By expanding your scope of possibilities, you increase the likelihood of finding a more effective or sustainable path forward.

  5. Learning from Failure

    Failure is an inevitable part of life, but it also provides valuable lessons and opportunities for growth. Instead of viewing failure as a setback, embrace it as a chance to learn, adapt, and improve. Reflect on past experiences to identify patterns, root causes of failure, and areas for improvement. By incorporating these insights into your decision-making process, you can make more informed choices and avoid repeating past mistakes.


Escaping the escalation of commitment trap requires courage, self-awareness, and a willingness to let go of past investments when necessary. By recognizing the signs, employing strategic decision-making techniques, and embracing failure as a learning opportunity, individuals can break free from detrimental patterns and pave the way for greater success and fulfillment in their lives.

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  • Source:
    • Encyclopedia of Management Theory Escalation of Commitment (Pg 256-259) By Eric H. Kessler

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