On Mental Inertia

Mental inertia is our tendency to hold on to an idea, sometimes fiercely, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Is the idea new? Is it real or is it just stubbornness? Can it be treated in others? Can we treat ourselves?

Well, it’s not new…

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate. — Sir Francis Bacon Aphorism 46,’ Novum Organum, Book I (1620)

and apparently, it’s not just stubbornness…

There are two competing ideas on the process that governs the formation and maintenance of beliefs: 1) people maintain a belief because they have limited access to opposing beliefs, or 2) because they actively filter information in a way that avoids conflicting views. A new meta-analysis of past studies confirms the existence of active avoidance; when people are offered an opposing viewpoint, they will ignore it in favor of a supportive viewpoint in two out of three instances. — Ars Technica Study: choir prefers being preached to by 2:1 margin

That study revealed things that most of us have noticed to be true: more “close-minded” people tend to prefer their bias more than others and bias increases with age.

Can it be treated in others?

Unfortunately, the study only confirmed that the effect is real, but can say nothing of how it works. What it says, to me based on my own experiences with highly polarized people, is that the harder you hit someone with an opposing viewpoint, the more resolutely they will dig their mental feet in the ground. A long term, subtle approach may be the only effective means. And what is worse, it seems that the longer and more subtler the approach, the better the results with the highly annoying side effect that it takes a long time.

This reminds me of a tactic used in corporate meetings, but that could really apply anywhere. If you wish to get an opponent to take your idea, often it is best to suggest the idea as though it came from the opponent and then to remark on what a fabulous idea it is. More often than not, people’s vanity will work in your favor. No one likes to admit they were wrong even when the idea was never really theirs to begin with.

Can we treat ourselves?

The first step to solving a problem, is admitting that you have one. We all have firm ideas, and future research will probably lend insight as to why we all suffer from Mental Inertia. The only effective self-treatment is to try to be conscious of it. Associate your displeasure with other people’s stubbornness with Mental Inertia. It’ll help us all to realize when we’re guilty ourselves.

So, should we abandon all of our firmly held beliefs? No, by all means, hold them dear, just be willing to honestly listen to new and contrary ideas.