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It seems that I have an obsession for mind changing, in general, and for this title, in particular.

Six years ago, I published a first article with this title, writing about a few psychological and social mechanisms that prevent us from being flexible, from testing our own beliefs and abandoning them, if necessary. That first article (published in Romanian, in Revista Biz) seems to have hit a soft spot, because it was quite a success, and this made me look for new mechanisms that prevent us from changing our minds.

A year and a half ago I published a sequel, entirely dedicated to our instinct to look for evidence that confirms our point of view and to find fault with facts that contradict us (confirmation bias). In the meantime, I teach an MBA course and I have written a book chapter with the same name, “The courage to change our minds”, in which I describe other such mechanisms.

Today I am writing the third episode (if this sequel technique is successful in Hollywood, why not here) and I think that our inflexibility, at work and at home, is a generous enough subject for me to keep writing about it in the future.

Let’s begin. Can you think, please, of a recent dispute in which someone was totally inflexible? I bet that an example comes to your mind easily, as we are people who debate with abnegation, talent, and perseverance. I also bet that few of you have thought of yourselves. In general, the other is the stubborn one, not us.

And yet, I write here about our own inflexibility. This series of articles is about ourselves, about how each of us can be more productive and sleep more peacefully if we cultivate intellectual humility, the ability to ask ourselves from time to time “what if I am wrong?”. It’s difficult, I know.

If I were to put two quotes together,

“winning a dispute means destroying the other’s reality, and that hurts, so it is good to be gentle, even if you are right”

Haruki Murakami


“the person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Through transitivity, it’s painful to lose a dispute, especially with ourselves. Especially when the questioned belief is one in which we have invested, or one that defines us, or one that, if proven wrong, knocks us off from a pedestal. This article is about two other mechanisms that prevent us from changing our minds: the sunk cost effect applied to beliefs and the workings inside our brain, from a neurobiological point of view.

Sunk cost

Sunk cost is the tendency to continue a project that generates loss just because we have invested a lot in it so far. Money, time, attention, emotions, other resources.

We don’t close the business line, although it has a loss every year, because five years ago we invested a lot of money in it. We don’t give up on a college we don’t like because it would mean wasting the two years we already spent here. We don’t sell the car that keeps breaking down, although (because?) the repairs have cost us as much as a new car. We are not moving from the apartment that does not suit us anymore because three months ago we renovated the kitchen.

I don’t have the qualifications to write about careers and relationships, but I heard sunk cost manifests itself in those areas, as well. When deciding whether or not to keep a project alive (business, college, car, apartment, etc.), we must never think about past costs that can no longer be recovered (the investment five years ago, the two years of college, car repairs, custom kitchen). Giving them up, mentally, comes with a stomach ache, but is the right thing to do.

A nice manifesto about sunk cost in organizations is the one with the dead horse theory, illustrated by Kevin Nicoll. I wrote before how sunk cost makes us throw good money after bad. I bring it back into discussion because it also manifests itself when it comes to beliefs. A belief in which I have invested is much harder to abandon. A belief for which I have made sacrifices or one that I have had for a long time makes me cling to it. It is hard to change our minds. It is almost impossible to change an opinion that we have publicly backed or argued for, because all the efforts and sacrifices would have been in vain.

What can we do? In order to objectively analyze a belief for which we have made sacrifices, it’s necessary to be prepared to find out that we have made them in vain. For example, one way would be to ask ourselves “have I not become wiser in time? now, in a similar context, would I make the same sacrifices based on the same belief?”

Neural mechanisms of the mind

The neural mechanisms that are activated when a deep belief is attacked are similar to those that are activated when we are chased by a tiger. A study led by Jonas Kaplan in 2016 shows what happens in the brain when a belief is challenged. Functional MRI showed totally different neural responses, depending on the nature of the topic.

When presented with evidence that contradicted a neutral opinion (“Edison invented the light bulb” – that is how I found out that he did not actually invent it, he just took credit for it), no activity in the amygdala was observed – that part from the brain that deals with conditioned fear and response to threat. Also, the participants changed their minds in accordance with the new information received.

When the subjects (chosen on purpose to have democrat views) were presented evidence and statistics that contradicted their profound belief that gun control is good, fMRI observed intense activity in the amygdala and insular cortex. And, as expected, no participant changed his opinion. One researcher wrote

“when our deep beliefs are threatened, these brain structures emit the same signals as in situations where our physical security is threatened”

In short, you should know that next time you try to make someone abandon a strong belief, their neuronal perception is as if you are trying to hit them.

What can we do?  It’s difficult, but the key is to try as much as possible to separate the debated subject from the interlocutor’s identity. In organizations, the attachment we manifest for certain beliefs and the decisions that flow from them is related to the feeling of guilt.

If I change my mind now, it means that what I thought and done before was wrong. Instinctively we prefer not to change our minds, even if the price is the costly perpetuation of error.  A good leadership example was given to me by a Romanian CEO. When analyzing a failure, the CEO learned to start by eliminating the feeling of guilt: “The first thing I do is take the guilt out of the room, so I tell them not to worry, because in fact, I am the only one responsible”.

If you want to discuss more about inflexibility in thinking and how to deal with it, join my webinar on the topic on 3 November 2021. Or check out the courses I host at events and inside companies.

This article first appeared in Romanian, in Revista Biz.

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