Escalation action-inaction Psychological Science article FAQ

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APS published a post covering our recent Psychological Science article about action-inaction framing in escalation of commitment situations.

To offer a more comprehensive view on the topic, I’ll add my reply to the reporter, and will add answers to questions asked on the article:


When faced with situations involving negative feedback indicating that expectations were not met, people have a general tendency to take action (the Inaction Effect, Zeelenberg et al. 2002). Escalation of commitment situations involve negative feedback and sunk costs, with a decision between further escalating commitment to a losing course of action or de-escalating from the previous decision (withdrawing). Since both escalation and de-escalation can be construed or framed as either action or inaction, making clear which of the option is action and which is inaction seems to affect people’s choices so that they are more inclined to pursue whichever option – escalation or de-escalation – is framed as taking action.


We based our theorizing on the well-established action-effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982) and inaction-effect (Zeelenberg et al. 2002). Simply put, in neutral decision situations people tend to regret taking action over not taking action (action-effect), yet when there is an indication of loss or negative feedback, this effect reverses so that people tend to regret not taking action more than taking action (inaction-effect), indicative of the tendency to act when things go wrong. There could be a number of reasons for that, and two common explanations are the concepts of normality (norm theory; Kahneman & Miller, 1986) and justifiability (decision justifiability theory; Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002) . Meaning, that people act in accordance to what they can justify for themselves and others, and when prior outcomes are negative or there is negative feedback indicating things aren’t going as expected, the justified behavior is to take action to make corrections, whereas remaining inactive is harder to justify. Similarly, the general norm is to not take action when there is no indication of a problem (if it isn’t broken …), yet the more ‘normal’ behavior in case things are not going as expected is to try and do something (or, in some cases, anything, regardless of relevancy) in order to correct the course. Together, normality and justifiability, are theoretical explanations for the shifting preferences to taking action in escalation/de-escalation decisions.


We only took the first step, so we will need to establish the generalizability of the effect beyond the lab in every-day life situations with an accumulation of evidence to support our findings. Once we’ve established that the phenomenon is stable and generalizable, we can move on to further examine the impact of the concepts of action and inaction on decision-making more broadly. Action and inaction seem to be fundamental to the way people perceive and process situations and decisions, with implications for cognition, emotions, and behavior. We are currently in the process of mapping all action-inaction related biases, and examining further impact of action-inaction effects on other well-established biases, with the potential of offering a new perspective to understand and possibly tackle (predictably) “irrational” decision-making.



  • Connolly, T., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 212-216.
  • Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93, 136.
  • Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The psychology of preferences. Scientific American, 246, 160-173.
  • Zeelenberg, M., Van den Bos, K., Van Dijk, E., & Pieters, R. (2002). The inaction effect in the psychology of regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 314.


Have any other questions? Please email me or comment below.

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