Escalation of Commitmentt

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Staw and Ross (1986), Brockner (1992), Drummond (1995, 1997) and Newman and Sabherwal (1996) provide a somewhat simplistic behavioral rationale to illustrate escalation in its simplest form:  as someone waiting an inordinate amount of time for a bus when walking to the destination would be much faster.  Or, as the research suggests, continued investment in the stock market, commitment to a failed relationship, pouring more money into a “lemon” of a car.  Or, as Brockner proffers (Brockner, 1992), escalation theory can be explained simply by the example of someone being stuck in a queue that was going nowhere.  The thought process surrounding this situation is one of continued investment in time when the outcome may appear nebulous.  Balancing the investment of time and the individual’s decision of standing in a queue that was stagnant to that of making a decision to move away.  The initial decision to stand in line is undermined by the delay in movement but strengthened by the level of commitment and self-justification of the initial decision made by the individual to stand in the queue in the first place.  Perhaps, but as any man knows when standing in a line at a grocery store checkout, the length of time standing and waiting in line to cash out has an inverse relationship to the length of the line!  The sheer simplicity of these examples to explain escalation of commitment and the social, behavioural underpinnings at play are just too simple for words.  In all fairness to the researchers however, these examples were presented more for discussion purposes to illustrate the phenomenon of escalation than anything else.

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How long is too long?

Yet another explanation was presented in a social context that was even more bizarre. Consider Drummond’s case study to explain escalation (Drummond, 1997).  An employee, who turns out to be lazy and lacking initiative, is hired for a specific purpose.  It doesn’t work out.  A decision to fire him is consciously made.  In the process however, aversion sets in and the employer shirks away from the responsibility and continues to give the employee the benefit of the doubt.  The employer’s sense of self-justification in that initial decision of hiring may cause him to waiver, delay, and therefore exacerbate the situation as the relationship between employer and employee deteriorates to the point that it is affecting business.   Finally, in exasperation and after weeks of indecisiveness, the employee is fired.   Does this scenario equate to escalation of commitment on the employer’s part to keep the employee on in spite of the obvious difficulties? Perhaps it does as Drummond suggests (Drummond, 1997).  On the other hand, the experience may have more to do with the irrational inaction by the employer in a bounded and defined rational social environment that is the employee / employer relationship (Sargent, 1993).  There may be certain rules and mechanisms that make individuals react in a certain way when confronted with an unprecedented or an uncomfortable situation (Sargent, 1993).  The expectations of the employer when confronted with a listless, lazy employee may have upset his sense of equilibrium.  Couple that with an employer’s possible aversion to inter-personal social conflict, the expectations of the employee’s competence and initiative in light of his track record, and the decision to carry on in the hope that the employee would turn around, could be construed as an irrational expectation on the employer’s part.  Sargent’s Bounded Rationality in Macroeconomics (1993) suggests that good decisions are normally made when the decision maker can rationalize their decisions in a commonly understood environment.  Is Drummond’s example a case to explain escalation theory in its simplest form?  Perhaps, but perhaps this example of a seemingly out of control situation simply equates to a descriptive condition of a social consequence that manifests as a result of the employer’s irrational expectations and indecision.  In other words, escalation may merely be a cause and effect descriptive term of an uncomfortable social condition that intensifies over time.

Or it may be the millennial generation’s aversion to commitment.


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