The following post is a review/critique of :
Wong, K. F. E., Yik, M., & Kwong, J. Y. Y. (2006). Understanding the emotional aspects of escalation of commitment: The role of negative affect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 282-297.
The article contributes to escalation of commitment research by investigating the integration of an emotional perspective, looking into the possible effects of neuroticism’s negative affect dimension and negative state. It does so by an interesting comparison of 3 suggested possible effects representing 3 related theories.
My knowledge in escalation of commitment is limited. It was especially interesting for me to compare the article’s theory to some of my experiences of management escalation of commitment in my professional life as an IT manager (assuming I can be an objective judge of both EOC and neuroticism). I would have to say that reading through the paper my predictions of the results were leaned towards the “cognitive dissonance” suggested effect rather than “coping” and was a bit confused by the results as they were different than my organizational observations. Looking further into the small details of how escalation of commitment is defined and how it was tested helped me understand more but opened a series of new questions regarding the concept and a possible interpretation of the results.
The article explains escalation of commitment situation as “Specifically, under escalation situations, decision makers have the choice either to withdraw entirely from the current situation and switch to another course of action or to be persistent with the current course of action to see whether the negative situation will be turned around (Brockner, 1992; Staw, 1997)”. But that doesn’t seem to take into account the default choice or course of action, which is especially relevant when looking at it through the emotional perspective. We can look at EOC from two sides :
- Situation A : The default would be that the project would cease unless fed more funds – from my understanding this is the more classical EOC approach.
- Situation B : The default is that the project would continue unless aborted – from my experience this is the more common situation in organizational decision making as the big decisions in project funding are usually done long-term before project start with exit points at various intervals. Projects are usually multi-stage with withdrawal options at each delivery.
One could postulate a situation where both decisions should be taken together as one decision, but I would say that falls into situation A. Perhaps situation B is not perceived as escalation of commitment although the effect is exactly the same. Which begs the question – Is the action required to cancel the project or is the action required to invest more funds? Further leading to – is it important for this case how the situation is being framed?
Study 1 is clearly situation A. In study 2, it’s a bit more complicated than that as there is no decision to make, only evaluations, leading me to confusion whether this is really EOC. Either way, situation B was not tested.
Why is this important? Assuming situation B – the coping would might actually be reversed so that having to make the decision to withdraw in a project where the default is to continue is what arouses the negative effect. Furthermore, I would assume that for situation B withdrawing from a failing project isn’t withdrawal from the stressful situation as the decision effect will bring the failure into consciousness for a much longer period of time and will confront the person with the anxiety of having to make a new decision for a new project in light of apparent admission of failure. This suggests that cognitive dissonance and coping might follow the same pattern, which is what my initial gut feeling and organizational observation was about.
Other situations that might have been addressed in EOC literature – what happens in cases where the negative effect is open for interpretation and not such a clear cut (like the better competition case in Study 1)? My assumption is that this is when the cognitive dissonance pattern will take stronger effect, especially as social context of peer-supervisor pressure increases.
Furthermore, regarding the coping pattern – we don’t really know this has anything to do with coping, because we don’t know if the person really “coped” with it. Quantitative analysis is limited in that respect – why not just ask the respondent why they took that decision or assess whether after making that decision and receiving feedback their level of anxiety was really affected?
As I pointed out regarding Study 2 – Is making the decision to invest and performance evaluation really the same? Study 2 shows a bias but it doesn’t show a clear decision as there is no clearcut withdrawal option.
Another note regarding the practical implications – not being neurotic doesn’t mean that all will follow the same positive “optimism bias” and thus the following sentence is problematic – “This “quiet” group consists of those who may become extremely vulnerable to falling into the trap of “throwing good money after bad.” Furthermore, the study shows that the reason why neurotic managers take what is perceived as the “right decision” to not escalate are not doing so because of rational decision making but rather by a fluke that their personal biases bias them towards the “right” path. Yet, even this tendency of emotionality bias is a bias and is important to understand in the organizational context.