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Commitment Bias

| July 9, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… Sometimes it is actually better to stop, and not finish. Really?

Ever get to a point in a project where the need for the result goes away AND you continue to work anyway. Or, you’ve failed to reach a public goal you’ve set and concluded that you will not be able to reach the goal, yet you continue to try. Or, you’ve tried and tried to build a relationship with a person who shows no interest in building a relationship with you, and you double down and keep trying. Or, you’ve made a financial investment in a company and instead of increasing in value, it begins to tank. And, you hold on to that investment. I’m sure that you can add to this list your own examples where you have done exactly this.
The Decision Lab,a Canadian think-tank, writes that commitment bias, or as is sometimes called escalation of commitment or the sunk cost fallacy, describes how people and groups are willing to support their past ideas and decisions, even when new evidence or events makes doing so irrational. The Lab also notes that we tend to interpret evidence in a way that makes our past idea seem better.
The Lab also notes that this is a social and self-serving bias. Inconsistency is not a socially desirable attribute. So, we try to avoid it, even if avoiding it has large costs. “We also like to believe that we have made good choices and have good ideas, so we try not to abort ongoing commitments, even if it would be better to do so.”1
The idea of commitment bias was initially described by Barry M. Strawin his 1976 paper, “Knee deep in the big muddy: A study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action.”  In his paper Straw demonstrated that “persons committed the greatest amount of resources to a previously chosen course of action when they were personally responsible for negative consequences.” Simply stated, we really don’t like to give up, feeling that we will be seen as failures.
As an example of this, Eduard Turbelieves that “commitment bias is one of the major causes of political inefficiencies in the so-called ‘Western democracies.’ Politicians assume position X and won’t change. Behavioral scientists have proved that the more time humans spend sitting with their ideas, the more difficult it will be to change and divest ourselves from these notions.”
So, why do we do this?  Why do we find it so difficult to think “Well, I gave it my best” and move on? Tim Herrera,editor for the New York Times Smarter Living column, says it this way, beginning with personal mistakes: “Whoopsie: You completely bombed that career-making presentation, missed that deadline you could not miss or said something you absolutely should not have said. The world is going to crumble. Your life is over? Everyone will remember this mistake for the rest of your life! Right?”
Herrera continues: “No, of course we all know that isn’t true. Everyone messes up all the time, and it’s going to happen again. Our mistakes are rarely as big as we imagine them to be, and everyone else has more important things to do than think about your errors.”
The act of holding on to our mistakes as well as hanging onto a project destined for failure, or the attempt to build a relationship that failed, or the sure-fire financial investment that you held onto, are all examples of commitment bias. We, too often, hang onto things that are not working or have not worked, like the presentation we just gave, and let them strongly impact how we behave in the future. 
The Decision Lab’s research tells us that “we tend to interpret evidence in a way that makes our past idea better.” Herrerawrites that “We want to be seen as someone who is consistent, and recognizing that a major decision we’ve made was a mistake shatters that image. Our brains are working against change here on multiple levels, compounding the difficulty to fix a major life mistake.” We don’t want to be seen as a person who gives up.
He quotes Oset Baburwho, in a recent New York Times article, wrote that “The embarrassment and blow to your self-worth can manifest itself in unlimited ways – and sometimes it feels like it’s manifesting in all ways – and our bodies can even mimic that of physical pain.” We hurt emotionally and sometimes physically and are embarrassed, we feel like we’ve blown our value to ourselves and others.
So, what do you do? You must first be excruciatingly honest with yourself. You acknowledge the mistake, the goal that you cannot reach, the relationship that you cannot build, … It easy to say that you will do this, but actually doing it is much, much harder. Rachel Simmonsreminds us that being overly critical of ourselves can increase anxiety, and that overthinking is like agonizing self-criticism on repeat.
After accepting the fact that you erred, that you were unable to be successful in this activity, you need to move forward. How?
First, stop digging; let it go. If it’s something you continue to do, take those steps in your power to take to stop making the situation worse and to stop making similar commitments in the future. For example, make it a practice, if at all possible, to buy time before you accept major commitments. Give yourself the time to realistically reflect on the task or assignment you’ve been asked to undertake rather than saying yes without reflecting on the realities of the situation. Understand what you are committing yourself to do. Ask yourself whether or not you have the skills, the time, the patience, the demeanor, etc. to be successful. Take the time to do a walk through your thoughts and explore how you might actually undertake each step of the task. Identify the elements of the task that will be hard for you. Be very honest as you do this.
Second, you may want to make your next “thing,” something that has fewer unknowns and to take smaller steps as you work the assignment. A few real successes will provide strength and encouragement for larger endeavors.
Recovering from our commitments that did not go well, our mistakes, is never easy. There are both external and internal forces working against us. These include our biases that encourage us to stick with bad decisions and social pressures that warn us to avoid change. When you find yourself in such a situation, the first step is for you to forgive yourself and give yourself a break. This will clear your mind and enable you to do a restart.
Take some time this week to do an inventory of the things you are currently working on. Are any of them situations where you are “stuck” and experiencing a commitment bias? If so, ask yourself what your next step might be. Is it time to disengage? To change the parameters of the situation? To abandon the effort? Do take the time to consider the situation and map out a course of action. And, then begin to take action at a “situation appropriate” pace.
Make it a great week for you and your team. .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. The Decision Lab, Commitment Bias. (The Decision Lab is a Canadian think-tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science through research and analysis.)
  2. Barry M. Shaw, Knee deep in the big muddy: A study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action, Academic Press, Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 27-44 (1976).
  3. Eduard Jubany Tur, Idea of the Week: Commitment Bias, Hacker Noon, May 2, 2017.
  4. Tim Herrera, So You’ve Made a Huge Mistake. What Now?, New York Times, June 2019.
  5. Oset Babur, Talking About Failure Is Crucial for Growth. Here’s How to Do it Right., New York Times, August 2018.
  6. Rachel Simmons, Everyone Fails. Here’s How to Pick Yourself Back Up., New York Times.