Delaware Public Media

Why don't people give up when they're failing? UD study asks

Jul 31, 2018

Research from the University of Delaware shows people have a tendency to stay committed to their investments even when they’re bad ones.

UD Assistant Professor of Management Dustin Sleesman partnered with three Michigan State University researchers to study the escalation of commitment phenomenon.

It’s an internal bias held by a group or individual that has invested so many resources into a project or relationship they don’t want to end it, even if their endeavor is not likely to be a successful one.

Sleesman references ongoing plans for the state of California to build a high-speed train as an example of the commitment phenomenon. Reports indicate the projected cost of the train has more than tripled since being approved by voters.

“What do you do at this point?” asked Sleesman. “I mean, people have already had to move, businesses have been relocated as well. Thousands of construction workers have already started. You can’t stop now really. The project has taken on a life of its own.”

The very first academic paper on escalation of commitment was published right after the Vietnam War.

Sleesman’s was recently published in the Academy of Management Annals and synthesizes multiple studies to provide a more nuanced understanding.

It considers studies on subjects like entrepreneurs holding onto failing ventures, government agencies continuing to fund underperforming programs and Mount Everest climbers persisting through bad weather conditions.

Sleesman says much of escalation phenomenon is a result of cultural values, reinforcing the idea of never giving up.  Another factor is ego.

“A sense of identity gets wrapped up into the project as well. So that entrepreneur that starts that company—they take a lot of pride in that. So if that company fails they see that as themselves failing as well,” he said.

Sleesman concludes to say the way you think about decisions matters. Don’t frame it as whether to continue or quit, but rather to continue or pursue an alternative course of action