Why do people support their past ideas, even when presented with evidence that they're wrong?
Commitment Bias, explained.
What is the Commitment Bias?
Commitment bias, also known as the escalation of commitment, describes our tendency to remain committed to our past behaviors, particularly those exhibited publicly, even if they do not have desirable outcomes.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine you’re wrapping up your first year of university, majoring in anatomy and cell biology. You’ve always considered science to be your passion, so it came as no surprise to anyone when this was the path you chose. During your first semester, you enrolled in an elective course about the history of modern Europe. While you generally enjoyed your core anatomy classes, you found yourself enjoying your history class above all others. You enjoyed it so much, in fact, that you decided to take a couple of other history courses in your second semester. Throughout the year, a voice in the back of your mind has been pushing you to change your major, and to get a Bachelor of Arts in History. However, this decision goes against your future goals and everything you’ve ever said about yourself. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind, yet you feel pressured to keep things consistent. Your hesitation to change your major, even though it’s what you truly want to do, is the result of commitment bias.
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The feeling that our future behaviors must align with the things we have said and done in the past severely compromises our ability to make good decisions. This is especially true when our initial decision has led to unfavorable outcomes. Furthermore, it can be problematic when our past behaviors do not align with our current values.
Refusing to change one’s stance may not only lead to undesirable results, but it can also act as a barrier to personal growth. The ability to acknowledge flaws in our past behaviors with the goal of bettering ourselves is incredibly adaptive. It will ultimately gain us greater self-insight and help us to make decisions in a more critical and logical manner.
Commitment bias can become an even greater issue when it is exhibited by someone in a position of power. It has been suggested that this occurs in organizations where the decision-maker is questioning their status in the social hierarchy. Researchers also contend that this behavior is common when governmental policies are being put forth and the person tasked with making the decision is “anxious about [their] standing among constituents.”1 Since commitment bias can result in poor decision making and these kinds of decisions are often important ones, this is cause for concern.
Why it happens
What commitment bias comes down to is that we are constantly trying to convince ourselves and others that we are rational decision-makers. We do so by maintaining consistency in our actions, as well as by defending our decisions to the people around us, as we feel that this will give us more credence.
Keep it consistent
Early research suggested that commitment bias is, in part, the result of self-justification. This can be us justifying our past behavior to ourselves or to those around us.
It seems that the reasonable thing to do when our decisions result in unfavorable outcomes would be to face the consequences and learn how to make better choices for next time. However, this is not always what actually occurs. When our behavior has negative consequences, we often change our attitudes towards the outcome.2 For example, if a participant is told to perform a tedious task, and is not provided with sufficient compensation, they will change their attitude towards the task as a means of justifying why they participated in it. They may actually convince themselves that they enjoyed themselves, even if the task was purposefully designed to be as dull as possible. This effect is referred to as cognitive dissonance, the theory behind which was put forth by Festinger.3 It is an attempt to bridge the gap between a decision we made of our own accord and an outcome we do not like.
Barry M. Staw, who was the first to study and describe commitment bias, posits that this attitude shift results from a need for consistency, something which seems to act as a motivator for humankind in general.4 Inconsistency is what causes the uneasy feeling associated with cognitive dissonance. By changing the way we feel about the outcomes of our behavior, we eliminate that inconsistency and, by extension, our discomfort.
Not only do we attempt to justify our behaviors to ourselves, but we also try to make others see our behaviors as rational. In an attempt to save face, we may defend our behavior to others by trying to convince them that the choice we made was not a bad one after all. We may suggest that, while the immediate outcome was unfavorable, this decision will be beneficial in the long term.5 This is similar to confirmation bias, a cognitive bias which describes the phenomenon by which we selectively look for information that supports our stance, while ignoring information that discredits it. In the case of commitment bias, we cherry pick for information that makes our decision seem like a good one, while minimizing, or even disregarding completely, evidence that suggests we made the wrong choice.
While our shared desire for consistency is what pushes us to justify our behavior to ourselves, it is our need to be considered rational and competent by others that motivates us to defend our behavior publicly. This causes us to remain committed to our initial decision, because we feel that to do otherwise would call our ability to make sound decisions into question.
Why it is important
Being aware of commitment bias is an advantage in more ways than one. By becoming aware of it, we can begin working towards avoiding it. Since this bias can cause us to make poor decisions, avoiding it can be advantageous. Dismantling this bias is a starting point for personal growth, as doing so allows us to admit when we have made a mistake and learn from our past behavior.
A second way in which awareness of commitment bias can benefit us is described by Robert Cialdini in his Six Principles of Persuasion.6 Cialdini identified six principles that, when used ethically, can increase your persuasiveness. One of these principles is consistency, a factor that underlies commitment bias. Cialdini explained that, by having people make a small commitment early on, you increase the chances of them agreeing to make a larger commitment at a later date. There are many areas where this knowledge of commitment bias may be useful. It can help with anything from making a sale to persuading someone to keep up with their annual visit to the doctor.
How to avoid it
Avoiding commitment bias isn’t always easy. For one thing, it involves going against our natural drive for consistency. For another, it can make us worry that others will think poorly of us for making bad decisions.
The first step to avoiding commitment bias is recognizing that consistency isn’t the be-all and end-all. If you find that certain past behaviors of yours no longer align with your goals or values, there’s no reason to remain committed to them. We’re allowed to grow and change – in fact, it’s encouraged that we do so. It’s irrational to make decisions based solely on a desire for consistency, or a fear of shaking things up. Conscious recognition of that can help us avoid this type of behavior in the future.
Furthermore, while we worry that others will think less of us if our decisions lead to negative outcomes, people actually tend to have more respect for those who are able to admit that they made a mistake. That being said, there will always be people who disagree with you, so why worry about that? Think back on the example of the college student who is putting off changing their major because they’re worried people will judge them. Perhaps they’re right; they may have friends or family who are surprised, or even disappointed by the change. However, the decision to change their major affects no one but themselves, so why should they let the judgement of others hold them back? The key to avoiding commitment bias is to focus on the good that will come from changing your behavior, instead of worrying about what others will think of you.
How it all started
The first description of commitment bias came from Staw’s 1976 paper, “Knee-deep in the big muddy: a study of escalating commitment to a chosen course of action”.7 He illustrated how, when our decisions have negative consequences, it seems like the obvious course of action would be to try something else instead, yet, these undesirable outcomes often serve to make us more resolute in our initial choice. Staw used the literature on forced compliance studies to support this hypothesis, by explaining how, in these kinds of experiments, participants often try to justify their behavior.
Staw tested his theory by having participants read a case study and make decisions about the allocation of funds within a company in a hypothetical situation. The consequences of the participants’ decisions were manipulated by the experimenter such that they were either in the “positive outcomes” condition or the “negative outcomes” decision. For those in the former condition, the outcome of their decision about the allocation of the business’ money was favorable. For those in the latter condition, the outcome was unfavorable; they were told that they had made the wrong decision. The findings supported Staw’s theory by showing that the participants in the “negative outcomes” condition engaged in commitment bias. Moreover, there was evidence of the participants attempting to justify their behavior to themselves as well as others.8
Example 1 - Sunk cost fallacy
Sunk cost fallacy refers to how we feel the need to follow through with something once we’ve invested time and/or money into it. It is an example of commitment bias, as it occurs even when the outcome isn’t one we hoped for. We feel that if we don’t stay committed, the investments we made will have all been for nothing. This causes us to feel wasteful and to question our ability to make rational decisions. Even though it’s usually not the best course of action, it sometimes feels better to suffer through the negative consequences.
This fallacy originates from economics, where a sunk cost refers to money that has already been spent and cannot be recovered. In economics, you’re not supposed to let sunk costs factor into your decision to continue investing in something. This is sound advice, but we don’t always follow it.
For example, have your eyes ever been bigger than your stomach and caused you to order far too much food at a restaurant? And did you force yourself to eat it all, simply because you were going to have to pay for it either way? This is an example of sunk cost fallacy. You felt the need to overeat in order to get your money’s worth, even though you probably enjoyed your meal less because of it.
Example 2 - DARE
Many people could tell you about their grade school experiences with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program. This program was put into place in the eighties by a police chief and a school board, with the goal of deterring teens from using drugs, joining gangs, and engaging in violence. The program was usually delivered by police officers, who preached a zero-tolerance approach to drug use, and attempted to teach children good decision making skills.
A meta-analysis examining several studies on DARE’s effectiveness found that the program has no effect on the likelihood of participants using drugs. Not only that, but it was also found that, despite its popularity, DARE is even less effective than other similar programs.9 Even more troubling are the findings from Werch and Owen, which showed that programs similar to DARE and, in one case, even DARE itself, can actually be iatrogenic, that is to say, it can actually increase the likelihood of participants using drugs.10
Despite this evidence, DARE continues to receive substantial government funding. This is an example of commitment bias as the government has remained committed to this approach to preventing drug use, when the outcomes are clearly unfavorable.
What it is
Commitment bias describes our unwillingness to make decisions that contradict things we have said or done in the past. This is usually seen when the behavior occurs publicly.
Why it happens
When our past decisions lead to unfavorable outcomes, we feel the need to justify them to ourselves, as well as others. This results in us developing an argument in support of this behavior, which can cause us to change our attitudes towards it.
Example 1 – Sunk cost fallacy
Sunk cost fallacy is a form of commitment bias. It refers to how we feel the need to follow through with something once we’ve invested time and/or money into it.
Example 2 – DARE
Despite the evidence against its effectiveness, the government continues to provide funding for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Program. This is an example of commitment bias, as it illustrates our continued commitment to a cause, in spite of its unfavorable outcomes.
How to avoid it
To avoid commitment bias, remember that it’s always a better idea to make a decision based on logic and reason that it is to do so just because it’s consistent with your past behavior. Furthermore, instead of worrying about what other people will think of you if you admit you made a mistake, focus on the good that comes from changing your behavior.