Continuing On In the Face Of Disappointing Results

(Photo courtesy of Tom Curtis /

In Critical Thinking – Apply As Needed, I addressed how the lack of critical thinking is affecting our ability to judge what is a problem, whether certain items that are identified as problems are amenable to solutions, and whether a proposed solution actually solves a problem. It seems logical that, when a solution has meandered on for years, been reformed once or twice, yet everyone agrees that the problem is worse than ever, that finally politicians would throw in the towel, proclaim that the proposed solution seems to be not working, and come up with a new plan.

Yet, time after time, they don’t. Why is that? Why do they continue to throw good money after bad, when it’s obvious that things are not only not better, they are generally much worse, and heading in the wrong direction?

The compulsion to stick with the date you came with, and not change horses in midstream, is not confined to the political world. Barry M. Staw originally coined the term “escalation of commitment” to explain the tendency to resist any alteration in direction by business decision makers. The stubborn digging of deeper ruts is widespread, which is why there are so many metaphors associated with it.

The process starts with the decision making itself. Decision makers like to think of themselves as rational beings, with a firm grasp on all the facts. Not so, says H.A. Simon, who defined “bounded rationality” as “the concept that decision makers do not have the ability or the resources to process all the available information and alternatives to make optimal decisions.” There are two aspects of decision making and its consequences that, when brought together, seed the ground for the growth of the escalation of commitment.

First, the decision maker commits resources to a particular course of action. Then, despite his best efforts, he experiences disappointing results. This chain of events occurs quite frequently, as a new project gets underway. Many times a slow start is merely a hurdle to be overcome. But, as time goes on, resources are fully implemented, and the tide refuses to turn, perseverance in the face of successive failures becomes unwise when objective evidence shows that further commitment is unwise, yet the decision maker continues anyway.

In “Escalation of Commitment”, Theresa F. Kelly and Katherine L. Milkman state that there are a few reasons that decision makers dig in their heels in the face of overwhelming evidence that they should cut their losses:

  • Self-justification. There is a cognitive dissonance between the decision maker thinking of himself as competent and his making a bad decision. His first instinct is to work even harder to correct the situation to relieve that dissonance.
  • Confirmation bias. The decision maker under weights any evidence that the project is not going well, and over weights any evidence that shows that it is succeeding. Sometimes the decision maker will actively seek out any information that validates his decision to the exclusion of any opposing facts.
  • Loss aversion. Losing tends to hurt more than winning feels good, and the decision maker wants to avoid locking in a loss.
  • Impression management. The decision maker wants to keep from looking incompetent. He doesn’t want to be seen as a flip-flopper, when any inconsistency is seen as weakness.

Kelly and Milkman tell us that there are times when escalation of commitment is more likely:

  • Personal responsibility for the success of the project. Studies have shown that simply asking people to imagine that they were responsible for a project increases their desire to escalate the commitment, let alone actually running the job.
  • Sunk costs. The more that has been sunk in, the worse the escalation of commitment, even though the sunk costs are irrecoverable.
  • Proximity to completion. The closer to the end, the worse the escalation of commitment. Completion of the job supersedes the original goal of solving the problem.
  • Exogenous explanations for failure. There’s always some outside reason that things aren’t working.
  • Group decision making. This can trend one of two ways. Either one person stands up and says, “Stop the Madness!”, or groupthink engulfs everyone and the mob pushes on.

The authors list ways to avert the escalation of commitment. The decision maker must:

  • Actively seek out any unfavorable information regarding the progress of the project.
  • Structure incentives so that people are not punished for losses.
  • Hand off decisions about whether to continue to new people.
  • Don’t consider expended resources when deciding whether to continue.
  • Remind himself of what the original goals were.

It is painfully obvious that either none of these techniques have been attempted to slow down the escalation of commitment in the political world, or their application has done no good. From the War on Poverty, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Wars, to—I don’t need to go on, do I?—mere failure does not act as a deterrent to pouring more money, more manpower, ever more resources down the drain.

It is understandable, with all of the innate motivation residing in the human psyche, that the political decision makers would find it difficult to be swayed from their course. What is less understandable is the voters’ unwillingness to hold their feet to the fire, to tell them to fish or cut bait—there are as many metaphors relating to the need to move on as there are to continue down the trodden path. So why do we find it so difficult to use them when all the objective evidence that we can muster is warning us to quit going down the wrong path?

Or is the problem that the voters in these situations feel as culpable as the original decision makers themselves? After all, politicians spend a lot of time and money demonstrating how similar they are to the average voter. They go to great lengths to explain their programs and their proposals, getting the voters on board with their plans, making them part of the process.

And if the voters are become the decision makers they have more need than ever for critical thinking skills. If the politicians can’t find it in themselves to be objective, the rest of us must remind of them of why they are there in the first place.

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Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics

2 responses to “Continuing On In the Face Of Disappointing Results

  1. OK. This is attempt #3 to say that I agree with your research very much. It has played out in my experience more times than I can report. People’s tendency to choose the avenue of least resistance in the present allows them to duck actually thinking things through. Making tough, life-changing decisions must be approached with a fly-over point of view rather than an emotional, microscopic vision. It takes time to encourage folks to take a step back. We seem to slowly be getting politicians willing to do so. Yay! Tea party!

  2. Jim Schweder

    I believe you omitted one important aspect of the decision makers thought processes. The need to CMA (cover my ass).

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