Driving to the supermarket, tuning in to NPR, and wow! What an enlightened conversation. No, it wasn’t the usual political drivel about who is a flip-flopper (in case you don’t know who he is; it’s the guy who drove to Canada with his dog on the car’s roof)). We also heard the accusation that he doesn’t have a core, whatever that means. But why is this moniker derogatory? Could it be that the guy simply changed his mind as circumstances changed? Which reminds me of John Maynard Keynes, the famed British economist and investor, who was accused of flip-flopping. His reply is a classic: “when circumstances change, I change. What do you do, sir?”

We are wired for consistency

Let’s use a less emotionally charged word  for flip-flopping: inconsistency. Now we can start dealing with the problem in a more dispassionate way. We know that we don’t like inconsistency, and we know why: because our brain is wired for predictability, which in turn is based on consistency. For instance, it is important for a child to be able to predict his parents reactions to familiar situations. Inconsistent reactions to the same situation, such as unexpected bursts of anger, can cause severe psychological problem to the child. David J. Linden, Professor of Neurobiology at Johns Hopkins and author of “The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Gambling and Learning Feel so Good”, states it this way:

“we have lots of brain circuits that are making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day.  And the brain pays special attention to other people, Linden says.

“We’re extremely attuned to the veracity, and the predictability, and the group spirit and the motivations of those around us,” he says

That’s probably from thousands of years living in groups. To stay alive, we had to know if the person who helped us yesterday might hurt us tomorrow.

Prediction is so important that our brains actually give us a chemical reward when we do it well, Linden says.

“We are intrinsically wired to take pleasure from our predictions that come true,” he says.

Get it right and you get a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine or a related brain chemical. Get it wrong and dopamine levels dip, Linden says.

All that training makes us extremely sensitive to the consistency and predictability of people we depend on, Linden says.

“If we have a sense that there is a mismatch between our prediction and their actions, that is something that sets off neural alarm bells,” he says. And if we think they have been inconsistent about something fundamental, he says, we will feel betrayed.

“When we feel deeply betrayed, either by a leader, or by someone in our social circle, or by our beloved, that pain really is similar to physical pain,” Linden says.

In other words, we’re hard-wired to suffer from the inconsistency of flip-floppers. No wonder we don’t like them.”

It’s not that simple

We are not total slaves to the automatic circuits of our brains. On top of the hard-wired reactions is the prefrontal cortex, the CEO of our brain; it filters, weighs and integrates all the incoming information and makes a judgment. And that’s why some people don’t see inconsistency as a character flaw, whereas other are plain livid at the cynicism. To me it smacks of rank tribalism, “my country right or wrong” type of thing.

Jamie Barden, a psychology professor a Howard University in Washington is doing research on the psychology group-identification (see

Barden found a clever way to look at how people make judgments about inconsistent behavior in politics.

In one study, Barden gathered a group of students, both Democrats and Republicans, and told them that their job was to evaluate the behavior of a political fundraiser named Mike.

The first piece of information the students got about Mike was that after a long night of drinking at a fundraiser he’d organized, Mike drove home and wrapped his car around a telephone pole.

Then they found out that about a month after the crash, Mike had gone on the radio and delivered a screed about the dangers of drunken driving. Mike had driven while drunk, then Mike had preached against drunken driving.

The students were then provided with a blank space and the opportunity to weigh in on Mike’s behavior.

Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.

The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.

So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?

What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.

Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Repubican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.

When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.

In other words our judgments about what is inconsistent and what isn’t are clouded by our social allegiances. In fact, the research makes it clear it is hopelessly clouded.

Further, there’s a whole other school of research that shows that though we can often see this bias in our opponents, we are blind to the behavior in ourselves. We believe that we are earnestly making judgements based on facts, on reality.

I find it a bit humbling.

Consider the rigid, steadfast candidate

Psychologist Philip Tetlock, at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, has worked on a research project for decades that can help answer that question.

He’s based some of his conclusions on an ancient aphorism from the Greek warriot-poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Tetlock applies this analogy to politics. The hedgehog has one goal: It doesn’t want to get eaten. Foxes, on the other hand, are crafty. They have lots of strategies to catch a hedgehog.

Tetlock thinks consistent leaders simplify a complex world into a few big ideas. That’s why he thinks they’re like hedgehogs.

“There are many different types of hedgehogs,” Tetlock says. “You could be on the left or the right. You could be a free-market hedgehog, or you could be a Keynesian hedgehog or even a socialist or Marxist hedgehog.”

By contrast, leaders who are foxes don’t have a single agenda. They have lots of contradictory goals. They support government spending in one case; oppose it in another. They compromise.

“Foxes, on average, are more likely to be neither extreme boomsters nor extreme doomsters,” says Tetlock. “They are less likely to be on the extreme left or the extreme right.”

So Tea Party-types and dyed-in-the-wool liberals, which would you rather have: your hero the hedgehog, or the much reviled fox?

The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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