The impact of performance attributions on escalation of commitment.

Author:Huning, Tobias M.


Escalation of commitment (Aka misguided persistence) has been a salient topic in management research since the seminal work of Staw (1976). People exhibit strong tendencies to become locked into courses of action (Brockner, 1992; Staw, 1997). Individuals must be able to judge when it is appropriate to avoid or abandon tasks or projects (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman, 1982). When they fail to do so, individuals can escalate their commitment to a losing course of action. Escalation of commitment typically manifests itself as the tendency to continue to invest in a losing course of action, particularly when one is personally responsible for the initiation of the failing investment (Staw, 1976). Escalating commitment involves investing time and effort, even when the likelihood of failure is high and perhaps even certain. The causes of escalation of commitment can be found in self-justification, problem framing, sunk costs, goal substitution, self-efficacy, accountability, and illusion of control (Wong, Yik, & Kwong, 2006). Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that escalation of commitment (Moon, 2001; Staw, 1976:1997) can undermine performance (Steel, Brothen, & Wambach, 2001; Wolters, 2003), decision quality (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; Staw, 1997), and goal setting (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). However, despite multiple theoretical and empirical advancements and attempts aimed at disentangling the causes and processes behind escalated commitment, we know very little about the attributions people make of their escalated commitment. After a review of the literature we find that attributional biases offer important insights into the causal mechanism that leads people to escalate their commitment to a failing path. Therefore, we will present a review of attribution theory followed by theoretical derived and tested hypotheses about the relationship between performance attributions and misguided persistence.


Originating from Heider's (1958) description of the "naive psychologist", attribution theory attempts to find causal explanations for events and human behaviors. Several models have been developed from this idea, which attempt to explain the process by which these attributions are made in the case of self attribution (e.g. Weiner, 1974; Abramson, Seligman & Teasdale, 1978) and social attributions made regarding the behaviors and outcomes of others (e.g. Kelley, 1973, Thomson and Martinko, 2004).

The attributional model of achievement motivation and emotion has evolved over the past 20 years as an influential theory in social psychology and management (McAuley, Duncan, & Russell, 1992). Weiner (1974), in his development of the achievement motivation model of attributions, classified causal attributions across two dimensions; the locus of causality, and the stability of the cause. The first, locus of causality, originally proposed by Rotter (1966), is the degree to which the attributed cause is internal to the person, or part of the external environment. Internal attributions might include factors such as low intelligence, or lack of attention. External attributions could include weather conditions, or task difficulty. A second dimension, stability, refers to the degree to which the cause remains constant over time. The example of low intelligence would be stable, where the example of lack of attentiveness, would be unstable. Weiner (1979) and Zuckerman and Feldman (1984) added the dimension of controllability to the achievement motivation model. This dimension focused on whether the cause of an event or behavior is controllable or uncontrollable.

McAuley, Duncan and Russell (1992) expanded the concept of controllability by proposing dual dimensions of personal and external control. For personal control, the attributor indicates that he or she either can or cannot personally control the outcome of the event. The external control dimension measures the degree to which the attributor sees the situation as being controllable by anyone else, such as a supervisor or co-worker. Vielva and Iraurgi, (2002) suggest that a response indicating external control is different from a response indicating uncontrollability. This paper proposes that the type of attribution made by an employee across these dimensions is likely to impact an employee's tendency to engage in the negative emotional activity referred to as escalation of commitment.



To continue reading