Home > Uncategorized > The Show Must Go On! The War on Terrorism and Other Escalations of Commitment

The Show Must Go On! The War on Terrorism and Other Escalations of Commitment


We are in the 16th year of the War on Terrorism and less than a week ago, Donald Trump raised the stakes by bombing Syria and Afganistan. The Afganistan bombing was the largest non-nuclear bomb deployed in the history of the United States. When confronted about the decision, Trump referred to the dropping of the 30 ft, 11 ton MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Blast) on an Islamic State cave and tunnel complex as a, “very, very successful mission.” Successful by what means? Every decision by the past three presidents to further engage in this war has led to more US soldier and Middle Eastern civilian casualties and we have made no steps towards conflict resolution. If this sort of stubborn persistence seems familiar that’s because this kind of error has been repeated throughout history as seen in the Vietnam War, in economic bailouts, and in failed skyscraper building projects just to name a few. This behavioral error is a cognitive bias known as escalation of commitment, or the Sunk Cost Effect.

Escalation of commitment is the act of continuing a project even though the outcomes are becoming increasingly negative. If you’ve ever tried to push through a furniture project from Ikea, or if you have told one small lie that led to multiple bigger lies, then you too have fallen victim to escalation of commitment. Learning from past mistakes helps us avoid those mistakes in the future, yet this behavioral tendency is one that we struggle to overcome, even when we are made fully aware of it. Why do we continue to make these mistakes? Is it something biological or psychological? Is it something we can prevent or overcome? The answer to all of these questions is yes!


Biological and Psychological Basis of Escalation of Commitment

Is falling victim to escalation of commitment part of the nature of being human? As it turns out, it’s not just humans who share this stupidity. A study done by Pattison et. al. showed that pigeons share the same tendency to over-commit to started projects that we do (Pattison, Zental, Watanabe, & 2012). in an operant chamber, a box with two levers designed to deliver food rewards after a certain number of pecks, pigeons were tested on their willingness to switch levers in order to minimize the amount of pecks necessary to receive a reward. When the buttons would light up, they would then become active and the pigeons were trained to know that the red button required 30 pecks for a food reward, while the green button only required 15 pecks. The rational pigeon should be indifferent between switching targets if the green button were to light up 15 pecks into the 30 pecks required for a red button reward. They found that these birdbrains tended to stick to their guns and continue on a 30-peck project even if they were presented with the 15-peck option as early as 10 pecks in. How many extra pecks would a United States President take at the War on Terrorism before he realized an alternative? The answer is not that easy and the blame can’t always go to one man.



The role of a well-structured government is to avoid the tyranny of an unjust leader, but an interesting element of the escalation of commitment is that groups of leaders are more susceptible to these fallacies than individual leaders. Bazerman et. al. published a study showing that escalation of commitment errors are common in both individuals and in group decision making settings (Bazerman, Giuliano, & Appelman, 1984). In a role-playing game where financial decisions were made for a project, the researchers found that the teams were more likely to fall victim to escalation of commitment than individuals were. How could this be? Researchers suggest that perhaps individuals in the group fear proposing a change in course because it might disrupt harmony of the group, referred to in psychology as group cognitive dissonance (Matz & Wood 2005).


The psychological elements that cause both groups and individuals to stubbornly push onward might be more correlated than we think. Along with cognitive dissonance in groups, other cognitive theories attempt to approach the nature of the escalation of commitment, some of which can be found here. Self-justification theory and prospect theory supplement what we know about escalation of commitment and suggest alternative reasons for this behavior.


Self-justification theory is a tendency to ignore negative feedback and seek justification for a decision you have made. Think of the last time you consciously made an unhealthy eating decision. Do you remember convincing yourself that you deserved it? That positive self-talk can be helpful in some cases but cn lead to an unwanted relapse from a diet in other cases. A historical example of self-justification is when George W. Bush gave the famed “mission accomplished” address in 2003 referring to the war which is still going on today. President Bush’s self-justification of accomplishing the mission in Iraq led to continued troop deployment and further losses in civilian and US casualties during his terms and even more losses today as we have just witnessed in Syria and Afganistan.



Another cognitive theory that effects escalation of commitment is the prospect theory best seen in the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder was a bombing objective that lasted 3 years in duration. Incurring losses in US debt, weaponry, countless US and civilian casualties; bombing pursued because the certain loss of giving up at any given time was considered more threatening than the risk of continuing. The escalation of commitment in this case is a result of loss aversion in the prospect theory. Prospect theory applies to escalation of commitment in that we are aversive to certain loss when presented with an alternative risky loss. If you were told you have to pay $100 in taxes at the end of the month but for $5 extra dollars you have a one in 25 chance of paying no taxes that month, would you pay the extra $5? Why not risk it for the chance of success?  Despite the probable disadvantage of the deal, lots of people would take that bet. This is a representation of loss aversion in prospect theory, which is well discussed in this article.


Preventing Escalation of Commitment

Let’s move back to Trump’s “very, very successful mission.” and the implications of having a refuse-to-lose president. Group cognitive dissonance among his advisors, self-justification through his tweets, and loss aversion of a refuse-to-lose politician dead set on building a wall that the majority of the US population opposes, all serve as red flags for fatal errors in escalation of commitment. So how can we prevent this? Three seemingly obvious solutions can help prevent escalation of commitment from taking over:


  1. Evaluate- use analytics, metrics, and probability to the best of your ability in order to clarify additional risk compared to actualized loss as in prospect theory.


  1. Separate- pull decision makers apart from time to time in order to negate cognitive dissonance in groups and to provide the individuals with freedom of original thought.


  1. Emancipate- free decision makers of their self-justification and if they are too stubborn to accept their mistakes, then emancipate them from their decision making role.


Whether you are Donald Trump adding insult to an already unwinnable war or a high school student building upon a curfew alibi, please carefully consider your next moves and avoid escalation of commitment.


Bazerman, M. H., Giuliano, T., & Appelman, A. (1984). Escalation of commitment in individual and group decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 33, 141-152.

Matz, D. C., & Wood, W. (2005). Cognitive dissonance in groups: the consequences of disagreement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(1), 22-37.

Pattison, K. F., Zentall, T. R., & Watanabe, S. (2012). Sunk Cost: Pigeons (Columba livia), too, show bias to complete a task rather than shift to another. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 126(1), 1-9.

Staw, B. M. (1997). The escalation of commitment: An update and appraisal. Organizational Decision Making, 191-212.

Yoder, C. Y., Mancha, R., & Agrawal, N. (2014). Culture-related factors affect sunk cost bias. American Psychological Association, 19(4), 105-118.

Zeng, J., Zhang, Q., Chen, C., Yu, R., & Gong, Q. (2013). An fMRI study on sunk cost effect. Brain Research, 1519, 63-70.

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  1. May 2nd, 2017 at 23:16 | #1

    Great post Jack! If you really think about it, we face escalation of commitment every day and it’s important to be aware of that. First of all, this bias relates a lot to mine on the IKEA effect, where people ascribe more value to self-made products than to similar products that are of equal or even higher quality. Thinking in terms of escalation of commitment, the more effort that you put into something, the more justification you will do to reduce cognitive dissonance.

    Having played team sports for the majority of my life, I found the note about Bazerman, Giuliano, & Appelman’s (1984) study very interesting. It makes sense to me that teams are more likely to have escalation of commitment than are individuals. Although we haven’t discussed this in class, the theory of group polarization may explain this finding. In group polarization (original study can be found here) individuals are more likely to have extreme thinking (one way or the other) once they are part of a group. Often this is because one or several loud/charismatic group members draw everyone’s opinions in their direction. Relating back to escalation of commitment, if these same loud/charismatic group members are experience the bias, everyone else is likely to as well!

  2. May 2nd, 2017 at 23:24 | #2

    Technical difficulties… here is the link to the group polarization study by Meyers and Lamb (1976) http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/83/4/602.pdf@Scott Fenwick

  3. May 2nd, 2017 at 23:30 | #3

    Good observation Scott! That feeling of already having put work into something can often hold us back both in the case of making future decisions or holding on to ones we have made, in the case of the IKEA effect you have talked about. The more you put into someting the more you believe to get out of it and the more valuable it is to you. Even other cognitive biases like the mere exposure effect might play a role in our overjustification of original thought and effort.

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