July 21, 2020 1 Comment

Why do we double down on the stupid things we say?

Q1. Is it a good thing to change your mind?

YES! Leslie John and her colleagues in Harvard Business school examined data from an entrepreneurial pitch competition and found that when startup founders who pitched their ideas to investors are challenged by facts that contradict them, nearly 76%, of them did not change their mind. This was unfortunate if not stupid: investors were more impressed by the minority 24% of entrepreneurs who accepted that they were wrong: all else being equal, those who backed down were 6 times more likely to advance to the next round of the competition relative to those who doubled down.

Q2. If changing your mind is so useful, why don’t people change their mind as often as they should?

The same group who did the above study addressed this question too. They first wanted to know how we perceive those who change their mind.

Q3. What do people think of those who change their mind and those who don’t?

They showed that people view those who do change their mind (vs those who double down) as more intelligent but lacking confidence (see Figure 1). Importantly, these perceptions were consequential: people preferred to invest in the ideas of those who changed their mind and were more likely to hire them.

Figure 1. How are people perceived when they insist (white) or change their mind (black)? Source John et al (2019).

But all of this only emphasises the question even more: if we all agree that those who change their mind are more intelligent, more likely to be hired etc, then why do most of us do the stupid thing and double down on our opinion when it turns out that we are wrong? What is wrong with us?

Q4. Could it be that we are misguided about how others may perceive us if we changed our mind? Maybe when it comes to predicting others’ perception of ourselves, we are particularly optimistic?

Answer. No. Study No. 4 in the same paper showed that people understand very well that if they do not change their minds, they will be perceived as idiots.

Internet would tell us that the famous quip “when facts change, I change my mind” was actually not said by John Maynard Keynes but by Paul Samuelson. Interestingly, Keynes was indeed famous for having no trouble changing his mind. In 1961 Paul Samuelson wrote about Keynes, “[…] if Parliament asked six economists for an opinion on any subject they always got seven answers. Two from John Maynard Keynes”.

Q5. Maybe people think that changing their mind would be embarrassing. If they hate so badly to be embarrassed, then they might accept to come across as an idiot. This is a long shot for a hypothesis but John et al tested this possibility.

Answer. To test this possibility, John and colleagues reasoned that actors’ propensity to back down might be more sensitive to whether they can do so with minimal embarrassment (i.e. when no one is watching them). They found that people were more likely to change their minds in situations where they could do so in relative privacy compared to situations in which a lot of observers were present. Oddly enough, we are more prepared to do what is good for our social image when no one is watching.

Q6. But what if intelligence was irrelevant? Would people then value doubling down?

Indeed YES! there are situations in which stubbornness is valued. John and colleagues did another study where participants evaluated job candidates. People were more likely to hire a candidate who changed their mind for a job that required intelligence (e.g., engineering). However, this preference was absent when they hired a candidate for a job where confidence was valued (e.g. public speaker). It turns out, if your job is to come across as confident, then it does not matter if you also come across as an idiot (rings a bell?)

1 Comment

  • Ophelia Deroy

    A one minute paper can help : Tetlock, P. E., Skitka, L., & Boettger, R. (1989). Social and cognitive strategies for coping with accountability: Conformity, complexity, and bolstering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 632–640
    There are 3 distinctive strategies that people rely on when pressed (a) when people know the views of the audience and are unconstrained by past commitments, they will rely on the low-effort acceptability heuristic and simply shift their views toward those of the prospective audience, (b) when people do not know the views of the audience and are unconstrained by past commitments, they will be motivated to think in relatively flexible, multidimensional ways (preemptive self- criticism), and (c) when people are accountable for positions to which they feel committed, they will devote the majority of their mental effort to justifying those positions (defensive bolstering).


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