Photo: Bartholomew Cooke
A few years ago, I decided to take up piano. Past experience probably should have warned me against this: When I was in elementary school, four years of the Suzuki violin method left me barely able to play scales. But I thought it might be fun to stretch myself a bit.
Learning an instrument in adulthood is tougher than doing so as a kid. The part of the brain that processes sound teems with new neural connections in childhood, but that "wiring" activity wanes after age 12. I understood this because when I started piano lessons, I was studying child development. In my free time, I squeezed in sessions on my shiny Yamaha keyboard, but week after week, my teacher watched with pity as I muddled through my repertoire. "Are you sure you practiced this one?" she often asked, hoping for my sake, I think, that the answer was no.
At home, our two-room apartment constricted with each halting rendition of "Amazing Grace," and there were building-volume standoffs between my keyboard and my boyfriend's TV. True to my type A personality, the nagging feeling that I should be practicing more became a steady thrum of anxiety. When it came time for my first adult-student recital, I backed out using a not-very-adult method—a last-minute text message to my teacher faking the flu. I knew I should pull the plug. But I kept thinking, "Quit? After all this?"
In retrospect, it seems so silly—to have continued devoting time to a losing proposition just because I was in knee-deep. But it turns out my response was perfectly human: Psychologists call the phenomenon "escalation of commitment to a failing course of action," and it can have a profound influence on decisions big and small. Whether it's a boring book, a rocky marriage, or a job that's going nowhere, we sometimes stick with a doomed endeavor longer than we should in order to justify our original decision and the time, money, or effort we've already put into it.
What's pernicious about this mental trap is that it can lead us to double down when we shouldn't. Barry M. Staw, PhD, first found this to be true in a landmark 1976 study involving business students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The subjects were put in charge of a made-up company and asked to allocate funds between divisions. During the experiment, some were told they had invested in a division that subsequently performed poorly, while others believed another manager had funded that group. The subjects who felt personally responsible then earmarked almost 40 percent more, on average, for the lagging division.