Permission to be Mistaken
Consistency? Or flexibility?
What would it be like if we applauded politicians for changing their mind, rather than criticising them for U-turns? What if we appreciated “learning” rather than “expertise”? How about admiring a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one?
A correspondence following on from last week’s blog post on a post-truth world inspired these thoughts.
The human brain really, REALLY likes consistency, in ourselves and in others — even if that leads us to be consistently wrong.
According to Robert Cialdini, we are driven to maintain a positive and consistent self image. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he cites research that found:
“When residents in Palo Alto were asked to put up a large billboard in their lawn for the ‘Drive Safely’ campaign, only 18% agreed. Nearby, almost all residents initially agreed to put up a 3 inch sticker with the same message and then when these residents were asked to put up the large billboard, 76% of them agreed.”
Why? They had already identified as someone who cared enough about safe driving that they were willing to put up a small sticker. That thin end of the psychological wedge was enough to make them subsequently persuadable to put up a large and unsightly billboard with the same message.
Once we’ve decided who we are and what we stand for, we like to stick to it.
I’ve noticed this in myself. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, I wasn’t passionate about one side or the other. To be fair, we were getting very mixed messages from those at the top, so a certain amount of confusion was a reasonable response. I narrowly came down on the side of Remain. As subsequent events (and books like Chums) revealed what a half-cocked campaign Brexit was, I noticed myself becoming rather proud of my Remainer status, conveniently forgetting that I had been rather wishy-washy on the issue until the last minute.
And if we identify with one perspective when we’re right, it seems we might be even more prone to defend a viewpoint if we suspect we might be wrong. We double down on our belief, and all in the name of consistency.
In Liminal Thinking, Dave Gray writes about the two-step test that our brains impose on new information:
- Is this new data consistent with what I already “know” about the world?
- If this data does happen to be true, does the world make more sense?
We tend not to get to Step 2 if the incoming data doesn’t get through Step 1.
Consistency is valued over truth. The brain seems to have an innate reluctance to tolerate two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time, holding them in ambiguous juxtaposition pending further information.
When Margaret Thatcher declared, “ The lady’s not for turning “ on her deregulation of the financial markets, it cemented her reputation as the Iron Lady and her speech received a five-minute standing ovation (admittedly at the Tory Party Conference, and audiences don’t come much more obsequious than that).
We continue to expect consistency in our politicians, and any changes of mind or policy receive crowing accusations of incompetence from political pundits.
The result is that politicians are motivated to do more of the same, rather than more of what’s good.
And maybe politicians often know that they don’t know, and as above, people will most doggedly and dogmatically defend what they’re not quite sure about, especially once they’ve said it in public.
Of course, it’s understandable that we want our politicians to be consistent, especially if we have acted on their advice and bought a diesel car, or sacrificed contact with loved ones in the interest of public health, while our esteemed leaders were partying on down at Number Ten. Policy changes can send shock waves across an entire society and have very real financial and medical implications.
And yet, no government can be right 100% of the time — especially in a system where ministers are given a new department and expected to be an expert in 3 seconds flat. Especially in a fast-changing world where new information and evidence are emerging in real time. Especially in a complex system where policies can and usually will have unintended consequences.
Consistency or Change?
So which do we choose? Consistency, even when consistency will be consistently bad, or changeability, which can leave everybody confused and ungrounded?
Personally, I would give more credit to politicians and scientists who are willing to say “I used to believe this but now I believe that because of new evidence x, y and z” — especially if they were willing to be transparent about their data from the outset.
I would like to see us applaud “learning” rather than “expertise”. In my forthcoming book I write about how many civilisations fail because they try to apply old solutions to new challenges, so knowledge should always be evolving because situations are always evolving. We need experts to have the humility to admit when they were mistaken, without howling for their resignation.
And that starts with the individual. Am I willing to admit I was mistaken? Are you?
Following on from the theme of story, I recommend this article on the BBC website about three alternative stories: subject, consumer, or citizen. How we think of ourselves and our role in society has profound implications for our individual and collective wellbeing. It seems to me that there is a widespread shift happening, from me to we. Early days yet, but it seems to me that this shift is crucial if we are to create a sustainable future.
In fact, I’ve just written a book about it… The Ocean in a Drop: Navigating from Crisis to Consciousness, due out on 25th November.
Originally published at https://www.rozsavage.com on August 11, 2022.