Escalation of Commitment: How We Justify Bad Behavior
“The first step in changing anything is admitting it exists.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
“I’m not going to lie to you; I’ve been having some problems with my boss lately. She’s really out of line sometimes. And she doesn’t like me either, but I have no choice now but to put up with her behavior because there isn’t much else I can do.”
~Anonymous employee at a large corporation
“My mother always told me never to justify evil. If someone does something wrong, they deserve whatever punishment comes their way.
But if someone is doing good things for others, then why are you judging them?
You’re supposed to be helping them!”
~Anonymous volunteer worker
“You don’t need to justify your actions. You just need to make sure that you aren’t making excuses for them.” ~Unknown motivational speaker
Self-justifying behavior occurs when we rationalize our own bad behaviors or those of others. Self-justification is often used as a defense mechanism against feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger and other negative emotions. It is a common habit among all people, even if they don’t realize it.
The human brain is a marvelous and fascinating organ. It can sometimes do incredible things. It can sometimes do terrible things as well. One of the lesser known features of our grey matter is its ability to engage in destructive self-justifying behavior.
It is our brain’s way of protecting itself from negative emotions that may cause us to feel bad about ourselves. If we can explain away our destructive behavior, then we can feel better about it. This is the intention behind self-justification: To provide ourselves with an excuse for our own poor behavior. It’s a tactic of the ego to make ourselves feel better.
This doesn’t mean that you’re a horrible person if you self-justify. In fact, most people engage in this kind of behavior on a daily basis. In some cases, self-justification can be beneficial. For example, imagine a shy person who is afraid to speak in front of large groups.
Rather than face their fear, they self-justify by telling themselves that they aren’t smart enough to succeed in public speaking. This way they don’t have to face their fears. However, in this case self-justification is actually hindering the person rather than helping them because it’s keeping them from improving themselves.
The dangers of self-justification do not only apply to the shy guy afraid to speak in front of large groups. This behavior can and will affect your relationships as well. Whether it’s a relationship with a significant other, parents, children, friends or even your boss, knowingly lying to them will only cause problems in the long run.
However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stick up for yourself or defend yourself against unwarranted attacks; you should. But there’s a fine line between defending yourself and engaging in self-justification. It’s very easy to cross that line without even realizing it.
How does this happen?
Well it happens quite easily. When we get attacked or feel attacked, our natural reaction is to defend ourselves. It’s a natural defense mechanism. However, if this defense mechanism is used too much or too aggressively, it can cause significant damage to the person you’re defending yourself against.
In some cases, this could cause a person to end a friendship or otherwise end a relationship. It could also result in them doing things that they wouldn’t normally do. These actions can in turn cause problems in other aspects of their life that were previously unaffected by your arguments.
So what can you do to avoid falling into this trap?
Recognize That You’re Being Defensive
One of the hardest things to do is recognize when you’re engaging in behavior that you don’t want to engage in. It can be even harder to stop yourself from doing it. However, if you’re serious about changing your life for the better, then you’re going to have to learn how to stop engaging in defensive behavior.
One of the best ways to recognize when you’re being defensive is to pay attention to your own thoughts. When you feel yourself engaging in behavior that could be considered “passive-aggressive,” then chances are you’re just trying to defend yourself.
Ask yourself why you feel the need to argue or defend yourself. Chances are, if it’s a frivolous reason, then you’re probably just trying to justify your own actions rather than accept any responsibility for your own mistakes. This is a common behavior for people who lack confidence in themselves. By trying to defend yourself rather than accept any responsibility, you’re effectively convincing yourself that you’re right and therefore you don’t need to change.
Of course this isn’t always the case, but if you notice this type of behavior occurring frequently in your daily life, then it might be a good idea to re-evaluate some of the choices you’ve made in the past.
Give yourself Permission to be Human
Inevitably you’re going to fail at things in life. You’re going to make mistakes and sometimes you won’t be able to achieve everything that you set out to achieve. That’s just how life works. The key is learning from these failures and moving on.
By engaging in defensive behavior, you’re effectively shutting yourself off from anyone who could potentially offer you help or even just moral support.
If you keep pushing people away, then how are you ever going to improve your life?
One of the reasons why people engage in defensive behavior is because they feel like they’re going to be judged for their failures. They don’t want others to see them as incompetent or incapable. This is in fact probably the #1 cause of this type of behavior.
One of the ways to combat this feeling is to give yourself permission to fail and give yourself permission to be human. It’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to not be perfect. Once you realize that it’s okay to fail, then it’s a lot easier to let other people help you. If you don’t let them help you, then you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.
After all, those who persist past the mistakes and the failures are the ones who succeed in life. Those who don’t usually end up getting stuck in a loop of their own personal hell.
If You See Someone Engaging In Defensive Behavior, Suggest Solutions Rather Than Blaming
A lot of times when people get defensive or start engaging in unnecessary arguments, it’s due to them feeling attacked or blamed for something. The key to not getting caught up in someone else’s defensiveness is to not attack or blame them.
One of the best ways to avoid causing defensiveness in others is to offer solutions rather than accusations. Instead of blaming them for messing something up, suggest how they can do things differently next time. Instead of accusing them of failing at something, offer to help them next time so that they’re more successful.
This will help the other person feel less attacked and more supported. Remember, people don’t like to feel like they’re being blamed or accused of something they haven’t done. By offering solutions rather than accusations, you’re letting them know that you care about helping them be successful and you’re not trying to put them on the spot.
If you see someone engaged in defensive behavior, you have a couple of options. You can either address the situation directly with them or you can just avoid the situation altogether.
If the person is someone who is close to you such as a family member or a friend, then it might be a good idea to address it with them. This way you can help them work through their issues and see why they might be causing problems for themselves. Don’t worry though, it’s not going to be an aggressive or confrontational discussion. It’ll be gentle and supportive.
You’ll first want to let the person know that you’re aware that they might be engaging in some defensive behavior. This is a subtle way of letting them know that they have your permission to talk about their feelings on the subject without feeling attacked.
Next, ask them if they feel like people are criticizing them or blaming them for something. If they say yes, then ask them if they feel like this is happening a lot. Ask them if they feel like people are accusing them of being incompetent or useless.
Then, you want to encourage them to see that other people are just trying to help them. Encourage them that it’s okay to accept the help instead of brushing it aside and claiming that they don’t need it. People are only trying to help them because they want the person to succeed. So, it’s okay if they let them.
In a lot of cases, this type of approach can really help a person see that they might be guilty of defensive behavior without blaming or accusing them directly. Again, this is a gentle way of approaching the situation without putting the other person on the defensive.
If the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel like others are criticizing or blaming them, then ask them if they feel like people are criticizing or blaming someone else. It’s likely that they’ll say yes since this is a common method of distancing ourselves from criticisms. We tend to see other people as the problem rather than ourselves, even though in this case we’re just projecting.
No matter what they say, just move on to step three.
Step Three: Apologize For Their Reaction
Even if they are engaging in defensive behavior and even if you know that you’re not at fault, apologize to the person for the things that you’ve done.
You might be thinking that this seems really stupid because there’s nothing wrong with what you did. And you’re right, there isn’t. You’re just trying to get the person to see that their reaction is out of proportion to what you’ve done.
When you apologize, do it genuinely. Don’t say the words unless you mean them. Say things like:
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“I’m sorry if I said something that made you upset.”
“I’m sorry that I did [x] when what I should’ve done was [y].”
Be careful and genuine with what you say, because this is a very important step.
Step Four: Move On
Once you’ve completed these steps, move on from the situation completely. You can’t keep dwelling on the fact that the person got offended or that they were being defensive. Just chalk it up to experience and move on.
If you find that the person is still being overly sensitive or they keep bringing up the situation or something similar happens again, then you’ll want to cut your losses and disengage from the relationship entirely. People who can’t handle disagreements without getting angry or upset aren’t worth your time.
Being mindful of how your words and actions affect people will go a long way towards improving your social skills. Sometimes you’ll say the wrong thing. It happens to everyone. The important thing is realizing when you’ve said something that might be offensive or hurtful and taking steps to fix it.
Always be willing to apologize if you know you’re in the wrong, because chances are nothing bad will happen if you do. Most people will forgive something minor after they’ve gotten over the initial offense.
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Sources & references used in this article:
The escalation of commitment to a course of action by BM Staw – Academy of management Review, 1981 – journals.aom.org
Escalation of commitment to an ineffective course of action: The effect of feedback having negative implications for self-identity by J Brockner, R Houser, G Birnbaum, K Lloyd… – Administrative Science …, 1986 – JSTOR
Escalation of commitment in individual and group decision making by MH Bazerman, T Giuliano, A Appelman – … behavior and human performance, 1984 – Elsevier
The escalation of commitment to a failing course of action: Toward theoretical progress by J Brockner – Academy of management Review, 1992 – journals.aom.org
If they can do it, why not us? Competitors as reference points for justifying escalation of commitment by KY Hsieh, W Tsai, MJ Chen – Academy of Management Journal, 2015 – journals.aom.org
Escalating commitment to a failing course of action: Separating the roles of choice and justification. by DR Bobocel, JP Meyer – Journal of Applied Psychology, 1994 – psycnet.apa.org
Reinvestment decisions by entrepreneurs: Rational decision-making or escalation of commitment? by AM McCarthy, FD Schoorman, AC Cooper – Journal of Business Venturing, 1993 – Elsevier
De-escalation of commitment in oil exploration: When sunk costs and negative feedback coincide. by H Garland, CA Sandefur, AC Rogers – Journal of Applied …, 1990 – psycnet.apa.org
The influence of compensation method and disclosure level on information search strategy and escalation of commitment by JD Beeler, JE Hunton – Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1997 – Wiley Online Library