Imagine that last year you applied for a job. As you learned more about the position, you decided you HAD to have it. You hired a coach to help you prepare; you asked a friend with a connection to put in a good word, bought new interview clothes, etc.
You went after it with everything you had. And you got the gig!
Now it’s a year later, and the job … kinda sucks. You complain about it regularly to your significant other and friends. But this morning, your boss asks if you’re ready to re-up your contract for another year. And … you say yes.
Why (the frick) did you do that? Well, one big reason might have been commitment bias.
What’s commitment bias?
Commitment bias is our tendency to believe in and support decisions we’ve made in the past, despite new evidence to the contrary. We don’t like being seen (by ourselves or others) as having made a bad call. So, we change our opinion/beliefs now to align with our previous decision.
In the case of the hypothetical job above, you made such a huge effort to get the job. Now, a year later, you don’t want to seem like you acted foolishly.
So, you convince yourself that the job isn’t that bad and will probably get better. You decide it’ll be a hassle to find another job, etc. All this so that you don’t seem like someone who a) made the wrong decision last year and b) is inconsistent with their beliefs and actions.
Why does it happen?
It’s a self-esteem thing. We don’t like to feel like we make bad decisions. So, when we see a bad result from a decision, we change our opinion of the outcome rather than admit it wasn’t a good decision.
We also don’t like to look inconsistent to other people. Society values consistency quite highly; we associate it with “intellectual and personal strength, rationality, honesty, and stability.” And conversely, people who are seen as inconsistent are often perceived as confused, two-faced, insecure or mentally off.
So, instead of looking inconsistent to others, we double down on the fact that our previous decisions were good ones. It’s basically like tripping and falling, then shouting, “I meant to do that! And being on the ground will ultimately provide me with valuable insight about concrete!”
Doubling down on our (poor) decisions is also a way to try to prove to others that we can make good decisions in the future (by “proving” we’ve made good decisions in the past).
Like most psychological biases, commitment bias makes life slightly easier on our brains. It takes much more thinking and emotion to constantly second guess ourselves, right?
Imagine going the wrong way to the supermarket and getting totally lost. Then the next day, you take the same route. Sure, you looked “consistent,” but nobody in your family got food either day.
Many of us are wary of looking inconsistent, but the ability to accept that you made a bad call (or were wrong) and the willingness to learn/grow from it is actually a mark of intelligence, maturity and wisdom. In other words: commitment bias can actually harm our reputation — and prevent us from becoming our best selves.
And on a day-to-day level, commitment bias can keep us from having an open mind to ideas and points of view counter to our previously held beliefs.
Unsurprisingly, commitment bias is one big reason our political and social systems stay so polarized. Everyone from politicians to public figures to the average person wants to feel and look consistent. So we disregard info that might cause us to second guess our previously held beliefs. And in turn, we double down on the “I’ve been right all along!” model in our minds.
How to reduce commitment bias
#1: Embrace learning and growing. The ability to adapt your beliefs to new information part of personal growth. (You wouldn't mature much if you retained every belief you held as a child, would you?) Admitting you were wrong about a decision you made or a belief you used to hold isn’t weakness; it’s maturity.
#2: Remind yourself that people respect you more when you are able to learn from your mistakes. There’s a fine line between consistency and stubbornness. And the latter is not appealing.
#3: Celebrate others when they admit they were wrong. Because if you want permission to grow and change, you need to allow other people the same grace.