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Consistency Bias May Be Holding You Back

Why learning to change our minds is a skill we must deliberately cultivate.

In 1955, a pair of social psychologists, Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard, conducted a famous experiment designed to test the effect of social influence on individual judgment. The basic procedure was to show subjects a series of lines and ask them to estimate their respective lengths. The results of this seemingly innocuous experiment highlight a cognitive bias that, left unchecked, could have serious implications for your business.

Row of pencils

To begin the study, the subjects were divided into three groups. One group, we’ll call them “Group 1,” was asked to write down their estimates on a piece of paper, sign it, and turn it in to the researchers. A second group, we’ll call them “Group 2,” was asked to write down their estimates and then erase them before anyone else could see what they had guessed. Finally, a third group, “Group 3,” was told to keep their estimates in mind privately. In setting up the experiment this way:

  • Group 1 had made a public commitment
  • Group 2 had made a private commitment
  • Group 3 had made no outward commitment at all

Deutsch and Gerard subsequently presented evidence to the subjects that their initial estimates were wrong. Curious to know how the various groups would respond, the researchers then gave the subjects a chance to revise their initial guesses. A clear and rather troubling pattern emerged in the way the three groups responded to the new evidence:

  • Group 3, those who had kept their initial estimates private, were the most influenced by the new information and were, therefore, the most likely to revise their initial guesses.
  • Group 2, those who had made a private commitment, were significantly less willing to change their minds.
  • Finally, Group 1, the subjects who had provided a public commitment, were the most resolute in holding to their original position.

Even in the face of contradictory evidence, the act of creating a public, unambiguous commitment made Group 1 hold the most stubbornly to their original declarations. These findings have concerning implications, especially in business, where clinging to outmoded positions can negatively impact our long-term prospects.

More Advice from Jason Griffing: How higher expectations lead to higher performance.

Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., author of the renowned book Influence—The Psychology of Persuasion, sums up this human tendency nicely, stating that, as humans, we have a “nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.” He goes on to state that, “This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations where accuracy should be more important than consistency.”

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the desire to be consistent. After all, no one likes a flip-flopper. But it’s not just about outward appearances. Our tendency to crave consistency has intrinsic value as well. Defaulting to our original stated position means we don’t have to constantly sift through the onslaught of conflicting information flying at us from every direction. Sorting through this deluge and constantly re-evaluating our decisions as if it were the first time would be an awfully inefficient way to operate. Consistency provides us with a much-needed mental shortcut.

Ironically, however, it is the very value of consistency that makes bias toward it so pernicious. Important projects, change initiatives, scheduling decisions, vendor selection — no part of the business is too big or too small for our unrelenting desire to appear consistent to rear its head. The effect can be subtle, but we’ve all surely experienced it before — a moment of clarity where we realized we’ve been holding onto a position for no better reason than our commitment bias.

More Advice from Jason Griffing: Tips for successfully driving change in your business.

Like the subjects in Group 1 who made a public commitment, the workplace requires all of us to go on record with our positions dozens, perhaps hundreds of times a day; from delegating tasks to establishing organizational priorities, from managing our own time to planning for the future of the business. Consistency between our stated positions and our actions is, on the whole, a generally positive thing. That is until new information comes along that renders our position untenable. Left unchecked, it is here that our consistency bias can become a serious liability, causing us to hold fast to positions that no longer serve our own best interests. In these situations, a willingness to change our minds is an important skill to deliberately cultivate.

So, what ideas have you been clinging to?