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Change your mind!

"Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything" - George Bernard Shaw

Thank you for joining me for my ninth blog in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

From the conviction politician, to the entrepreneur who 'just knew' that her idea would work just as expected, we celebrate people who take an unwavering stance on something. But... what about the person who rethought, unlearnt and adjusted their view in light of new evidence? In investing, as in life, my research suggests that humans find it difficult to change their minds - but it is essential. The only thing worse than being wrong, is staying wrong.

We know there is in-built resistance to change, as we place so much emphasis on 'making a good first impression' on people.

Why might we not change our mind?

As new information emerges, we change our minds, right? Not necessarily. This is where our intuitions about how we think and what actually happens can be quite different. The idea that we are slow or resistant to change our mind is known as cognitive inertia. It can happen for many reasons, but here are four of the most compelling reasons I could find:

1) Confirmation bias: we already had a view, and interpreted all new information so that it supported our view. An example where I have seen this could be the discussion around gun control in the US. If a person kills 30 people in a mass shooting, the anti-gun side of the debate see it as evidence there are too many guns in circulation, whereas the pro-gun side, see it as evidence that there were 30 unarmed people that could have fought back. The fact, that there was a shooting, has not changed, and might have in fact hardened the resolve of both sides.

2) Tribal opinion: sometimes our views or beliefs about the world around us have been directly given to us by people we respect or identify with. Examples of these are traditional or religious beliefs, or beliefs that are consistent with our political affiliations. When people from different traditions argue about the way they do things, they are often arguing from a position of a fixed view they have inherited e.g. which foods people should or should not eat. Another example of tribal beliefs is political party views to prevent climate change. Over the last 14 years, the proportion of Republican voters in the US who believe the environment should be a priority has barely moved from 38% but over that period the Democrat voters started at 65% and are now at 85%. I believe this difference can in part be explained by inherited opinion and confirmation bias.

3) Personal brand: you have now become associated with a particular view and generate much of your support from taking a particular stance. You are a leader of a point of view and wrapped up in the community around it. It therefore becomes very difficult for you to incorporate information that disagrees with that strong association and it is also likely that you receive a lot of information that neatly agrees with it in an 'echo chamber' environment.

4) Cognitive effort: we can save cognitive effort when we can close the case on an issue and just decide it 'once and for all'. Whether we like a person, food or the best way to get from a to b, sometimes we just like to come to a conclusion and are resistant to change after that. In some cases the lack of change is because it's not important enough to invest the effort in. This can have downstream consequences, particularly in group scenarios. If you are looking to create consensus on something that is important to you, but less important to others, there could be a situation where the group comes to an overly conservative conclusion because you can't convince others to invest the cognitive effort to fully incorporate new information.

Why is changing your mind important?

We all know that feeling where we have followed a train of thought that turns out to be wrong. It could be that information has come to light on a relationship, job or group you have joined that makes you believe you have made the wrong choice. A bad thing to do would be to consider all the effort you have made and regardless, decide to stick with it. If you did, you would be throwing good effort after bad - this is called the 'sunk cost fallacy'.

As we have discussed above, changing your mind will take some effort, but some of the greatest disruptive technologies, scientific discoveries and artistic feats have occurred, once someone went back to the drawing board on an idea that didn't quite feel right.

The key takeaways from today are:

1) We have an in-built resistance to change our mind that we should be aware of.

2) It generally comes about because we are interpreting information to fit our original view, are somehow personally or tribally attached to a view or just want to give an idea no further thought.

3) The benefits of being aware of cognitive inertia, is you can change your mind with knowledge of what doesn't work and consider something else.

Thank you for joining. This week's topic has been a natural entrance into learning and memory which will be the topic of the next series of blogs.


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