Consistency of thought – vice or virtue?

Marc Andreessen once said:

Ask yourself, would you rather be right or successful? That needs to be top of mind at all times because times change and we change. You want strong views weakly held.

And I just read the following advice from Jeff Bezos:

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

These opinions are striking because they are counter-intuitive and backed up by strong supporting logic.

But are they right?

For me the answer is yes, provided they are used sensibly.

Consistency is important to other people in your life. If they don’t know where you stand on stuff it makes it hard for them to go about their business. If a CEO changes the company strategy too frequently his company will soon be a mess. Moreover, people who change opinion too often lose credibility with their peers.

As a sidebar, it’s interesting that Andreessen stresses that views should be ‘strong’. I imagine that’s because the views and opinions are important because they influence other people, and that other people take strong views more seriously than weak views. There’s a certain paradox here though, which is that one of the reasons people take strong views seriously is because they assume strong views won’t change.

So consistency has it’s place and Andreessen and Bezos shouldn’t be taken too literally. That said, it’s destructive to hold onto wrong views just because we held them before. Bad decisions will result, along with spurious justifications that will undermine our credibility. Moreover, our brains are hard-wired to be consistent and a string of cognitive biases make it hard for us to recognise when we are wrong – e.g. confirmation bias.

As with everything in life the answer is to find the right balance (I find myself saying this so often now it’s starting to get boring….). I think Andreessen and Bezos are saying these things and others, myself included, are remarking on them because most people err too much on the side of consistency and don’t get the balance in the right place. This balance is particularly hard to strike because our unconscious brains are at work pushing us to be consistent. Part of the answer is to make sure our opinions are well thought through, and the other part is to keep the antennae highly tuned for signs we are wrong.