Bad Choices, Bad Turns, Bad Relationships: The Psychology of Stubborn
By Heath Shive
Obstinate people think that it is a virtue to be stubborn.
Why is it hard for us to change our minds, our jobs, our relationships, or our lives?
There is no inherent virtue in inflexibility. After all, the chair that I sit on is unchanging – but my chair is neither faithful nor wise.
But, scientifically, all humans might be programmed to be a little stubborn.
To the science!
My Mug, My Chocolate, My Choice?
In a 1989 paper, economist Jack Knetsch asked one group of students to choose between a coffee mug and a chocolate bar.
Of these students, 44% wanted the chocolate bar, 56% wanted mug.
Knetsch gave a second group only coffee mugs – but they could exchange for chocolate later, if they wanted.
Knetsch gave a third group nothing but chocolate bars – but they could exchange for mugs later, if they wanted.
One would expect that 44% of the students would have traded mugs for chocolate, and that 56% would have traded chocolate for mugs, right?
No! Only about 10% of the students wanted to exchange!
Knetsch’s experiment is used to demonstrate the endowment effect – that a person ascribes more value to something when he owns it.
But psychologist Richard Thaler interpreted the experiment differently in his book Nudge.
Thaler thought the experiment demonstrated “choice inertia” – that we do not like to change our minds.
We have an instinct to be stubborn.
Stubborn In The Face of Facts
Social psychologists M. Deutsch and H. Gerard performed a study on 3 different groups of college students. The students had to estimate the lengths of some lines.
One group guessed mentally without revealing their estimate. Another group had to write down their estimates, sign the paper, and hand these papers to the experimenter.
All students could change their mind as new evidence was introduced.
The students that only mentally guessed were the most likely to change their minds. But the students that wrote, singed, announced their guess were the least likely to change their decision.
The more effort we put into a decision, the more stubborn we become.
Betting On the Wrong Horse
Back in the 1960s, psychologists R. E. Knox and J. A. Inkster performed a study at a horse track. Knox and Inkster discovered that gamblers were more confident about their bet after they made their gamble.
There was no change in facts. The horses, the track, and the weather were all the same. But 30 seconds after they made their bet, they were more confident of winning.
Humans can delude themselves about the facts, if it reinforces their earlier decision.
To be stubborn is to be deluded.
Why are we pre-disposed to stick to our choices?
There is something called prospect theory, which – and this is my translation – means that we make choices based on imagined results, rather than factual probability.
Nobody gains skill, romance, or achievement after only one attempt.
We have to try and try again – imagining that someday we will win or that we will be proven right. This is perseverance - and it might be a human instinct.
So what is the difference between stubborn and perseverance?
We are stubborn when we pervert our innate optimism to serve our egos, in spite of the facts and results.
LIKE SCHOLARFOX ON FACEBOOK!
Deutsch, M., and H. B. Gerard. “A Study of Normative and Informational Social Influences upon Individual Judgment.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51 (1955): 629-36.
Knetsch, Jack L., "The Endowment Effect and Evidence of Nonreversible Indifference Curves," American Economic Review, 1989, 79, 1277-1284.
Knox, R. E., and J. A. Inkster. “Postdecisional Dissonance at Post Time.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(1968): 319-323.
Thaler, Ricard. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, 2008.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.