The absurdity of consistency

Quentin pointed me to this post in The Dilbert Blog. It reads, in part:

One of the most potent forms of persuasion has to do with people’s innate need to be consistent. Studies show that people will ignore logic and information to be consistent. (In other words, we are moist robots.) According to the research, humans are hardwired for consistency over reason. You already knew that: People don’t switch political parties or religions easily. What you didn’t know is how quickly and easily a manipulator can lock someone into a position.

For example, researchers asked people to write essays in support of a random point of view they did not hold. Months later, when surveyed, the majority held the opinion they wrote about, regardless of the topic. Once a person commits an opinion to writing – even an opinion he does not hold – it soon becomes his actual opinion. Not every time, but MOST of the time. The people in these experiments weren’t exposed to new information before writing their contrived opinions. All they did was sit down and write an opinion they didn’t actually have, and months later it became their actual opinion. The experiment worked whether the volunteers were writing the pro or the con position on the random topic.

Most of the truly stupid things done in this world have to do with this consistency principle. For example, once you define yourself as a loyal citizen of Elbonia, you do whatever the King of Elbonia tells you to do, no matter how stupid that is. And your mind invents reasons as to why dying is a perfectly good life strategy.

Right on. I’ve always thought that consistency is a peurile obsession. Oscar Wilde described it as “the last refuge of the unimaginative”. When Maynard Keynes was once accused (I think by a journalist) of changing his mind, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

And one of the most nauseating aspects of modern British political journalism is the triumphant cry of “U Turn!” that goes up whenever a politician changes his or her mind. It seems to me that U-turns are a sure sign of a sentient, thinking being.

The Dilbert post attracted many idiotic comments, but one stood out from the crowd. It quoted this paragraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self reliance:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.