Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment

Would you decide to just go out and spend $15,000 on tools to do a little work around the house?  Are the improvements to your backyard worth the $12,000 you ended up spending?  Would you decide to invest $3,000 on repairs to your old, unreliable car, even though it was only worth about $4,000 in the first place?  Or, is your prize collection of beanie babies, figurines, watches, or ­­­­­________­­­­___ (fill in the blank) really worth the thousands you’ve spent on it over the years?

If these were single, rationally considered decisions, you probably wouldn’t have made them.  However, as psychologist Robert Cialdini observed, a person’s commitment to a particular course of action sometimes “grow legs.”   Once we become clearly committed, we have a strong tendency to gradually increase our level of commitment to that course of action.  In doing so, we often lose sight of the original reasons and justification for choosing that course of action in the first place.

For example, it’s not unusual for the owner of an old car keep incrementally spending money on repairs as things break down… first the brakes… then the muffler… then the transmission… etc… hoping that each of these repairs will be the last.  As the bills mount, the owner often becomes even more determined, “I’ve already spent more than $2,000 repairing this thing.  I’m not going to back down and, in effect, throw that money away.”

This very common pattern is called irrational escalation and describes situations in which people make seemingly irrational decisions in order to justify the decisions they’ve already made or the actions they’ve already taken.  Irrational escalation shows up in a wide variety of situations including:   bidding wars that occur during auctions or corporate takeovers; military strategy (consider the Vietnam and Gulf wars); corporate or market investments that wind up “throwing good money after bad;” “collector” behavior; or the escalating cycle of retribution and punishment that occurs when a husband and wife become locked into a contentious divorce.  In addition, clever salespeople or fundraisers often employ “foot in the door” techniques that take advantage of people’s tendency towards irrational escalation as small initial commitments eventually build towards large commitments.

Although much of the research on commitment has focused on this negative behavioral cycle, the escalation of commitment is not always negative! Whenever we commit our time, energy, hearts, and minds to a worthy cause, it can have a very positive influence on our identity and our future behavior.  Over time, under the right conditions, we eventually have a hard time letting go; our positive behavior becomes less about “what we do” and more about “who we are.”  The positive escalation of commitment can describe how people adopt healthy behaviors like getting regular exercise or engaging in wellness programs… or become involved charity work and community service.

Recently, I’ve been studying the process people go through as they increasingly commit to energy conservation behaviors or “green” causes.  It seems that people typically adopt a conservative or green attitude in baby steps.  As they take each step, it reinforces their focus and awareness, as well as, their sense of identification with an aligned set of underlying values and beliefs.

Many utility companies are starting to more actively promote energy conservation or demand management (shifting use to off peak times) programs.  The effectiveness of these programs is highly dependent on the careful design of offerings, communications, and feedback mechanisms that get a “foot in the door” and build customer commitment incrementally from there.  Effective programs make it easy for customers to get started and then carefully reinforce a gradually increasing level of association with being a conservative, ecologically and economically minded consumer.  These programs can amplify customers’ commitment by providing positive feedback and by making the customer’s commitment publicly and socially visible.

Effective design of influential energy conservation and demand response programs is highly customer personae dependent. Obviously, not every customer has the same beliefs, attitudes, priorities, and behaviors related to energy use, conservation, the environment, and social responsibility.  In many ways, the adoption of energy conservation programs is similar to the adoption of wellness programs.  Some people readily adopt these programs because they fit with the way they already think.  For example, some customers have an “independently healthy” or “naturalist” personae related to their health.  On the other hand, some customers will never engage in a wellness program; they might have more of an “avoider” personae regarding their health.  However, there are several personae that are more influenceable.  The most effective programs must be designed to resonate with the mental model of these customer personae.

Cognitive Dissonance… Driving the Escalation of Commitment

One of the factors that drives the escalation of commitment is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance was first identified in the 1950s by psychologist, Leon Festinger (see:  The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and When Prophecy Fails).  Since that time, it has grown to become one of the central theories of social psychology.  A great, more recent book on the topic is Carol Tavris‘ and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):  Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person simultaneously holds conflicting ideas or beliefs.  Because holding two conflicting ideas or beliefs creates an unpleasant tension, people are naturally motivated to reduce it.  Dissonance reducing behavior is ego-defensive; by reducing dissonance, a person gets to maintain their positive self-image; an image that depicts them as a good or smart person.   Cognitive dissonance often produces behavior that is apparently irrational; although, to the person, it may seem very sensible.

Understanding and leveraging cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool for designing customer or employee experiences that positively influence a person’s thinking and behavior… and drive the escalation of commitment:

  • Justification and Filtering. Following a decision, especially either a difficult one or one that involves a significant amount of time, effort, or money, customers almost always experience dissonance. Did they do the right thing? The chosen alternative is seldom entirely positive, and the rejected alternatives including the “do nothing alternative” are seldom totally negative. After a significant decision, customers typically seek reinforcement that their decisions were good ones by seeking information that is reassuring. If at all possible, they try to convince themselves and others that it was a logical and reasonable thing to do. They avoid thinking about either the negative aspects of the choice they’ve made or the positive aspects of the un-chosen alternatives. In designing customer or employee experiences, it is important to arm customers with the story they’ll tell themselves and others. In many cases, it makes sense to continue marketing after the sale in a way that provides people with the ammunition they need to justify the decision they’ve made.
  • Responsibility. Dissonance effects are greatest when (1) people feel personally responsible for their actions and (2) their actions have serious consequences. If there is a significant amount of external reinforcement or incentives, we may not “own” the decision. For example, offering rewards to individuals for performing even the most pleasant activities decreases the intrinsic value of those activities and reduces the individual’s responsibility for having done it. This is why “incentive programs” not only don’t build permanent behavior, but may undermine it in some cases.
  • Consistency and Escalation. In the absence of strong conflicting signals, dissonance reduction will reinforce actions consistent with earlier commitments and behavior. In addition, once a small commitment is made, it sets the stage for ever-increasing commitments. The behavior needs to be justified, so attitudes are changed; this change in attitudes influences future decisions and behavior. When customers commit themselves in a small way, the likelihood they will commit themselves further in that direction is increased. This process of using small commitments to encourage people to accede to larger commitments has been dubbed the “foot in the door” technique. It is effective because having done the smaller favor sets up pressures toward agreeing to do the larger favor; in effect, it provides justification in advance for complying with the large requests.
  • Irrevocability and Inevitability. Two of the most important characteristics that effect cognitive dissonance are the relative irrevocability and inevitability of the decision. Irrevocable decisions always increase not only the dissonance but the motivation to reduce it. Once we’ve committed ourselves to an irrevocable course of action, it’s in our best interests to justify the decision we made and avoid conflicting information. In addition, research shows that a person’s dissonance is reduced with choices they see as inevitable.

In summary, designing influential experiences requires an understanding of cognitive dissonance and, in particular, how cognitive dissonance drives the escalation of commitment.   More on this in future posts.

One Response

  1. [...] Customer Innovations looks at the psychology of irrational escalation. [...]

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