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.

I knew how they felt. The harder I tried to master the ivories, the clearer it became that I wasn't destined to be the next Jerry Lee Lewis, and ironically, the harder it was for me to give up—until the weekend I visited my parents in Baltimore. Too embarrassed to practice with my family in listening range, I waited until everyone was asleep, then sneaked downstairs to the living room. I had slogged my way through the lesson book to Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," but now my fingers couldn't work up to the swinging ragtime pace. The song sounded labored and joyless, like a dying ice cream truck. It was 2 in the morning, normal people were sleeping, and I was beating myself up over a hobby. "This is absurd," I thought. I quit.

Stuffing the Yamaha under my bed back in Brooklyn was an enormous relief. But, of course, we can't resort to quitting every time the going gets tough, or we'd get nowhere. The challenge, explains Scott Plous, PhD, author of The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, is knowing the difference between an "investment trap" and a run-of-the-mill rough patch. When you're unsure, Plous recommends taking these three steps:

1. List arguments for and against continuing.
If your primary reasons for persevering have to do with the past—for instance, you find yourself thinking, "But we've been friends for so long" or "I've worked here so many years" or even "I've already sat through half of this Katherine Heigl movie"—it may be time to change course.

2. Solicit opinions from others, especially from those who weren't around for your initial decision.
People who aren't involved often have a different and useful perspective.

3. If you decide to go forward, schedule check-ins.
Tell everyone that you're going to give this project your all for six more months and then reevaluate. Plous calls this a built-in exit strategy. At that point, ask yourself, "If I could start over knowing what I know now, would I make the same choice?"

If I had to do it again, I wouldn't take on the piano. In fact, it was only after I quit that I discovered an extracurricular that is truly fulfilling: yoga. No one was more skeptical about breathing and bodily contortions than I was when I chanted my first "om." But 18 months later, my desire to practice gets stronger every week, and my sticky mat is the one place I find peace. Am I more adept at asanas than at making music? Actually, I can't even touch my toes. But that's beside the point. I'm not striving to perform perfectly; I'm just looking for harmony.

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