The 25 Cognitive Biases: Cognitive Inertia

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What is cognitive inertia? How do you overcome status quo bias?

Cognitive inertia is the tendency to resist change and ignore new information that contradicts prevailing beliefs. You can overcome inertia by considering counterarguments to your position and forcing yourself to act in ways that contradict your stale beliefs.

Read on to learn more about cognitive inertia.

What Is Cognitive Inertia?

Cognitive inertia is also known as confirmation bias, status quo bias, cognitive dissonance, sunk cost fallacy, or system justification.

Cognitive inertia happens because people are reluctant to change. This applies to personal behavior, beliefs, relationships, and commitments.

Once someone believes something, it’s typically hard for them to change their mind.

  • “The human mind works a lot like a human egg. When one sperm gets into a human egg, there’s an automatic shut-off device that bars any other sperm from getting in.”
  • Repeated exposures to the same belief reinforces it.

Behaviors are also hard to change. Anyone with a bad habit knows how hard changing behavior is, even when they know the habit is bad.

Behaviors and beliefs have an interesting way of reinforcing each other.

  • If you make big sacrifices in pursuit of a belief, this will intensify your devotion to that belief. How this works: your brain thinks, “I wouldn’t have made this big sacrifice if I didn’t think this way. So since I made a big sacrifice, I must really like this thing.”
  • If you act in a way that conflicts with an existing belief, you change your beliefs to accommodate the new behavior.
  • If you dislike someone, doing a favor for him will make you like that person more. Benjamin Franklin famously employed this technique, asking small favors of people who disliked him. Since disliking Franklin would be inconsistent with doing him a favor, people who did favors for him ended up liking him more.
  • Being forced to harm someone makes you dislike that person.

Why It Evolved

Cognitive inertia evolved because the brain optimizes energy efficiency. If you keep the same behavior and don’t question it, your brain conserves space and can make faster, simpler decisions.

On a social level, maintaining consistent behavior preserves social cohesion by maintaining social roles and responses. People stay loyal to their roles as citizens, soldiers, teachers, physicians, and so on, and other people can trust in their consistency.

How It Can Be Harmful

Cognitive inertia locks in a behavior or idea, even if it’s bad for you. If you start off making a bad decision caused by other biases, then you can get locked into that decision.

  • For example, say doubt-avoidance tendency causes you to make a rash, bad decision. Cognitive inertia then perpetuates that bad decision, and you keep making bad decisions.
  • For example, say disliking tendency causes you to start disliking someone. Then, to minimize inconsistency and to avoid changing your mind, you see progressively fewer virtues about the person and more you dislike about the person, causing you to hate him more.

Because of how strong cognitive inertia is, habits that form early can become a person’s destiny. For instance, pushing beliefs on children (such as political or religious beliefs) can be permanently damaging.

Examples

  • People tend to hold onto stocks for too long, whether they’ve risen or dropped in value.
  • Hazing rituals as initiation rites into groups strengthen the tie within the group. The new entrant thinks, “there’s no way I would have gone through that if I weren’t really into the group.”
  • In prisons, guards sometimes treat prisoners like animals, which causes retaliation from prisoners. To make their beliefs consistent with their actions, guards feel like they must hate the prisoners. This causes worse behavior and retaliation, and in turn perpetuates the cycle.
  • Even geniuses aren’t exempt from biases. Says Munger, “an older Einstein never accepted the full implications of quantum mechanics.”

Antidotes

If you want to overcome cognitive inertia and change your beliefs, force yourself to act in behaviors that contradict your beliefs. You will then have to correct your beliefs.

  • If you hate a political opponent, force yourself to know and like someone who follows the opponent. This will help you see the virtue in the other side and correct your hating tendency.
  • “Fake it til you make it”—picture the kind of person you want to be, and act like that person would. For example, think, “I’m the type of person who likes waking up and exercising.” If you act like this person would, your behavior will change your prior self-belief so that you eventually believe you become the type of person you want to be.

To avoid retrenching in your position, consider counterarguments to your position before making decisions. In fact, you should actively seek out opposition to your favorite ideas.

  • Jury trials force listening to both sides before making a verdict.
  • Stress-test your ideas with a trusted group of thinkers.
Cognitive Inertia: The Status Quo Bias

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  • A collection of Charlie Munger’s best advice given over 30 years
  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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