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Well, that escalated quickly: How to prevent poor decisions from becoming worse

by Julia Loughlin

Last Sunday morning I woke up, groggy-headed, dry-mouthed, with a piercing pain travelling through my skull and a nagging feeling of regret. ‘Well, that escalated quickly’, I thought, reflecting on the night before.

It had started innocuously enough, with an early dinner at Chin Chin, but a bottle of wine soon turned into a few rounds of cocktails, which led to dancing and ultimately ended up with my friend and I stumbling through our respective front doors at some wee hour of the morning. It’s not the first time things have got out of hand after a civilised dining experience, and it got me wondering: why do some things escalate so quickly? And if this is due to an underlying trait of human behaviour, how can we harness this to work in our favour?

It turns out ‘escalation situations’ are actually a thing. They are those in which losses have resulted from an original course of action, i.e. getting tipsy, being out late, spending money, but where there is the possibility of turning the situation around by investing further time, money or effort. That could be saying goodbye to your friends and resisting their pressures to get you to stay out, getting an Uber, and going home. 

This ‘decision pathology’ has also been labelled ‘the psychology of entrapment’, the ‘too much invested to quit syndrome’ and ‘the sunk cost effect’. You might know it by the internal monologue that goes something like, ‘It’s already late, I’m already drunk, I’ve already spent a lot of money, let’s order another round – it’s on me!’.

People like to think they are intelligent, rational human beings. So, if we’re doing seemingly irrational, sometimes dumb, activities we will try to bridge this ‘cognitive dissonance’ by rationalising the behaviour. If you’re a smoker, and you know it’s bad for you but you won’t quit, you might tell yourself it’s not that bad because the benefits outweigh the risks. Or, you might justify your earlier decisions by committing additional resources to them, like if you’re a gambler you’ll attempt to chase after your losses. 

Situations escalate because of incremental decision making.

When you’re lying in your bed on a Sunday morning craving Panadol and Gatorade, wondering ‘Why?’ ‘How?’, and vowing to never let it happen again, it might seem like you were not in control. It might feel like you were ‘carried away’, swept up in the wave of collective enthusiasm of those around you. But actually, psychologists say it’s quite the opposite. 

When we make a choice to do something, we feel responsible. This is intensified when the choice is made public, explicit or is irreversible. We also really value consistency. 

Studies show that a small, seemingly trivial commitment can have a powerful effect on future actions. One study,in particular, involved asking residents to sign a petition favouring the establishment of a nearby recreation centre for people with disabilities. It was a small ask and almost everyone agreed. Two weeks later, in a fundraising drive for the same cause, nearly all – 92% of those who had signed the petition – donated money, compared to only half who hadn’t been asked to sign the petition.

The implications are clear for those of us in the business of influence. If you want to persuade someone to follow through with something, seek a voluntary commitment to get the escalator moving. Ask a series of logical questions people can’t disagree with. 

Then, get it in writing. One study reduced missed appointments at doctors’ clinics by nearly 20% by simply asking patients, rather than the staff to write down the appointment details on the future appointment card.

Make it even stickier by making the commitment public. Testimonials or other public endorsements – like a comment in a media release or as a media case study – is effective not just to persuade the audience but also to convince the testifier themselves, because people want to believe they are right, and that they made the right choice.

Public celebration of desired behaviours, like championing key customers on social media or recognising their achievements with awards programs, fortifies your product, service, values and beliefs with their own sense of self. This increases share of customer and potential for referral.

As for waking up on a Sunday morning with nausea and regret? I could bridge the cognitive dissonance by rationalising the consequences as worth it for the fun I had. Or, as someone who has always been conscientious in my undertakings, I could remind myself that I needn’t be so committed and consistent in all my behaviour. Ordering the Uber just before the lights came on might actually have been the intelligent and rational thing to do.

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