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Too much commitment is bad news

What can go wrong when tenacity goes too far

People who keep going in the face of adversity speak to our emotions and our imagination like few other things do. Inspirational books are often written by (or at least about) successful sportspeople and intrepid explorers who achieved greatness through heroic perseverance.

Artists like The Beatles spent many years in relative obscurity, living on a pittance before they found fame and fortune. Long before they became billionaires, businesspeople such as Lord Sugar started out in the very modest surroundings of a council estate. And classic and popular literature alike features characters that pursue their goal without letting up, no matter what difficulties they run into. From adventurers like Ulysses and Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Roald Dahl’s Matilda — we cannot help but be in awe of their tenacity and their unwillingness to give up.

But these are all people who are not like us. Whether they’re fictional heroes or giants of the entertainment industry or business, their experiences seem to be well beyond us ordinary mortals. Not so. Last year, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania provided an insight into the science behind our fascination with the determination of these great people. In Grit: the power of passion and perseverance, she describes how this trait outweighs talent in realizing personal goals.

Talent is very much something we are born with, but the good news that from Duckworth’s work is that grit is something we can learn and cultivate. Whenever we encounter an obstacle on the way to our goal, we have a choice: to proceed or to give up. In a sense this is a conflict between the present us and the future us.

The thinking of the present us is dominated by the effort we need to put in now, and by the temptations of the alternatives to persevering. Maybe the ambition of completing a marathon is beyond us anyway, or finding the time to put in the regular hours training is simply not possible. Or perhaps we can start preparing next Monday, and enjoy relaxing in front of the TV just a little longer.

The future us takes a different view. Instead of focusing on the effort right now, it looks back at us from the time at which we have achieved our goal — or have given up. It is the emotions we imagine we will experience — the joy of succeeding, or the regret of having bowed out — that are feeding the passion element in Duckworth’s grit.

I’m a bit tied up now, but let the Sirens sing! (photo: Wikimedia)

But what about the perseverance part? We can use a device from the toolkit of behavioural science to help us that. Interestingly, it is named after one of the intrepid heroes mentioned earlier. The so-called Ulysses contract refers to the encounter of Homer’s hero with the Sirens. The song of these mythical creatures enchanted sailors, making them incapable of rational thought and wreck their boats on the perilous rocks around their island. Ulysses made a pact with his men: they were to put wax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the dangerous singing, and to tie him to the mast, to prevent him steering the boat towards the rocks. He also ordered them to attack him should he break free.

As a more contemporary version of this kind of commitment device, students have been known to give their Facebook password to a friend, ask them to change it and not tell them the new one until after their exams.

So commitment strategies can be a great tool to help us combat the irrational lure of our impulsive System 1, seeking immediate gratification and avoiding effort, and rely on our more rational System 2. But there is a flipside to commitment that could push us back into irrationality.

For it is one thing to make it easier for ourselves to choose the ‘right’ option and make choosing the ‘wrong’ options harder. But it is another thing to be so deeply committed that only one option remains possible. The expression ‘burning one’s bridges’ graphically illustrates the irrevocability of extreme commitment devices. Of course, sometimes there inevitably is a point of no return — for instance in aviation. When a plane is accelerating to take off, there is a point where aborting the manoeuvre is impossible. There is simply not enough runway to stop safely, and the plane has to take off, no matter what.

Avoiding inappropriate points of no return is not just a matter of avoiding extreme commitment strategies. It is also possible to build up such a strong emotional investment in a pursuit that it becomes impossible to back out.

The present British Prime Minister shows worrying signs that she may be at risk of this. As a Remain supporter (albeit a lukewarm one) she might have looked an unlikely person to negotiate and deliver the Brexit that the British voted for. But a fascinating review by David Runciman of a new biography of Theresa May shines a very revealing light on her character. Her “Brexit means Brexit” was not a hollow phrase, meant to appease the hardliners while she worked out a pragmatic way of limiting the damage. It was the mantra of her determination.

“She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to,” Runciman writes. “Many of the positions she adopts are ones she has inherited, seeing no option but to make good on other people’s promises. This has frequently brought her into conflict with the politicians from whom she inherited these commitments. By making fixed what her colleagues regarded as lines in the sand, she drove some of them mad.” This is not what characterizes a pragmatic politician, someone who is a master at the politics which, according to Otto von Bismarck, is “the art of the possible”.

Such blinkered focus on an end goal, strengthening the conviction that one is pursuing a righteous cause is antithesis to rationality. The commitment has then degenerated into the sunk cost fallacy.

And that is, unfortunately, unlikely to end well.

Originally published at on April 28, 2017.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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