Escalating Commitment, Or How To Head Straight For Disaster!

Last updated by Lauren Hart

You may sometimes say to yourself, “You might as well see things through to the end”, but aren’t you just kidding yourself? Very often, we convince ourselves that we need to finish what we’ve started, because damn, it makes us sweat having wasted time and money. Except that this is a very bad idea and a phenomenon that can be explained by escalating commitment. What is it? Why do we keep heading in the wrong direction? Let’s take a look at the consequences of this commitment and learn how to get out of it. Here are some explanations.

Escalating Commitment, Or How To Head Straight For Disaster!

What is escalating commitment?

Escalating commitment, also known as commitment bias, was first described by the American researcher Barry M. Staw in his 1976 article, “Knee deep in the big muddy: a study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action”. It’s a form of behavior in which we continue to make decisions in relation to an initial strategy, but which leads straight to a fiasco 😅.

Quite often, it’s a concept used to explain the failures of companies, such as Kodak, which didn’t believe in digital technology and persisted with film photography in the early 2000s 📸. Nevertheless, it’s also a behavior we can find in our own lives; here’s an example that happened to me (and can happen to many people):


I’m going to tell you about an old relationship of mine. I was in a relationship with someone I wasn’t madly in love with and who I had differences with. I kept telling myself that I was fed up and should have left him. But on the other hand, I also told myself that it was stupid to have wasted all that time, so I might as well stay. The more time passed, the deeper I sank into the escalating commitment. I kept at it, even though I knew the relationship wouldn’t last. Bingo, one day he was the one who dumped me and left 🙃. I persisted, even though it was clearly the wrong choice...

👋 You may be interested in this article: The dynamic spiral, a fantastic communication tool

Why do we keep persisting?

Escalating commitment is a phenomenon that’s still being studied today. We don’t know all the causes, but there are already elements that explain why we love heading straight for disaster. Our brains love confirmation bias and comfort themselves with this “it’s going to work out in the end anyway!” way of thinking. 🤨. It’s more reassuring to convince ourselves that we’ve made the right decision and that it’s going to work, than to confront reality. We completely gloss over the negative indicators, it’s a bit like our brains making us wear blinkers....

Worse still, we focus on parameters such as the time we’ve spent, our emotions or the money we’ve invested. We refuse to see the mistake, even though it’s right there in front of us, because we’ll feel that we’ve lost too much. In fact, it’s a cognitive distortion that leads us to adopt this mode of reasoning: the unrecoverable hit bias. Basically, it’s a sum paid in the past or time that has passed that’s no longer relevant to decisions about the future. Nonetheless, a loss is more important than a gain, so we’ll stick with it.

Bored people watching a movie

We’re at the movie theater, the film sucks, but rather than leave, we’re going to stay, because after all “well we paid anyway!”. That’s escalating commitment 😬.

How do we get out of escalating commitment?

It may seem trivial, especially with my last example, but escalating commitment speeds us towards harmful decisions, which contribute to making us unhappy, or even worse, put us in danger. Indeed, there are individuals or organizations, be they companies or cults, who are aware of this mechanism and who abuse it 😥. This is how you can end up getting fleeced at the casino or falling under the influence of a narcissistic pervert. It’s therefore important to be aware of this phenomenon, to make the right choices, but above all, to avoid being taken advantage of.

There are three ways to avoid getting stuck in escalating commitment:

👉 1. Have objective criteria for getting out of the project: in other words, set yourself a deadline to stop yourself and learn to say no. For example: if in a fortnight’s time I haven’t finished this book, I’ll give up on it. If in 6 months’ time we still argue just as much in my relationship, I’ll break it off. If I’ve spent my $100 at the casino, I won’t bet anymore. In short, it’s a way out of commitment, whatever it costs.

👉 2. Surround yourself with objective people: in other words, those who have no interest in our project. As such, you can ask them for their opinion and rely on these conversations to realize how much you’ve already lost and how much more you’re going to lose. Of course, we should avoid asking someone who has designs on our partner whether we should stay in the relationship! Don’t hesitate to ask for different opinions to gain some perspective.

👉 3. Don’t devote yourself to just one thing: usually these are the big projects like a relationship, work, buying a house, etc. This gives us something else to hold on to in the event of failure and prevents us from being overwhelmed by the anxiety of losing our biggest project. As such, we’re able to keep things in perspective better and get out of a project that will end in failure.

👋 You may be interested in this article: 12 Steps to follow for a fresh start!

Editor’s note: Identify it in order to react to it

We’ve all been sucked into a spiral of commitment at one point or another without necessarily realizing it. Thanks to Camille, you now know how to spot it, identify it and get out of it, and that’s the first and most important step. If you realize that escalating commitment is very present in your life, then it would be worth discussing it with a psychologist. A few sessions will enable you to understand where this mechanism comes from, why it’s so entrenched, and what changes you can make to get out of it.

🤗 Understanding yourself, accepting yourself, being happy... It’s here and now!


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Article presented by Lauren Hart

Writing is a beautiful means of expression that I cannot do without. It has allowed me to channel my hypersensitivity, plus I love writing about psychology and personal development. For me, self-understanding is the best way to move forward!

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Wengood's favorite tunes 🎵

Wengood's playlist


  1. Only LoveBen Howard
  2. Invalid date
  3. Fix YouColdplay
  4. Beautiful DayU2
  5. Thinking out LoudEd Sheeran
  6. White FlagDido
  7. Lay Me DownSam Smith
  8. Nine Million BicyclesKatie Melua
  9. Put Your Records OnCorinne Bailey Rae
  10. Summertime SadnessLana Del Rey
  11. Imagine - Remastered 2010John Lennon
  12. Shake It OutFlorence + The Machine
  13. Space Oddity - Love You Til Tuesday versionDavid Bowie
  14. What A Wonderful WorldLouis Armstrong
  15. With Or Without YouU2
  16. HelloAdele
  17. Don't Stop Me NowQueen
  18. Skinny LoveBirdy
  19. WingsBirdy
  20. Californian SoilLondon Grammar

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