“New is always bad. Never not be afraid!” … “I get it, Dad! I will never do anything new or different!”—The Croods

You want to get a job? Then take these steps:

1. Look for a job

2. Find a job

3. Evaluate the job[s]

4. Apply for at least one job

5. Try to get an interview for at least one job

6. Evaluate and accept a job offer or go back to #1

Sounds familiar—even obvious, or ridiculously so, as a set of dull-as-dust platitudes? [Or are you, nonetheless, about to excitedly tweet, “like” and share that list with everyone you know, like a galloping colonial Paul Revere or bell-ringing Salem town crier?]

If it’s earthshaking news to you, well, welcome to planet Earth. But even if there’s nothing at all informative in that list [which there isn’t], it can nonetheless seem to be very compelling and useful to very many people.

Most people, I imagine and hope, will find the opening job-hunt advice list I gave to be excruciatingly boring and unnecessary. Yet some will probably find it thrilling, even if only as confirmation of what even an inter-galactic reptilian overlord would understand before ever setting a first claw on our world.

That kind of preference for the familiar can be taken to ridiculous extremes—as would be the case if, for example, a farmer were to use an ox to pull a car, in order to save gas.

But why the widespread fascination with such truisms and with the familiar? Because, as I suggested above, the advice confirms what those people already agree with, what they believe or want to believe—which, much, if not most of the time, or at least initially, is as important, if not more important, and valued than discovering something completely new at odds with it. 

As a minimum, most of us seem to want to have our comfortable, useful or at least familiar [Devil that we know] beliefs and values confirmed in preference to having them challenged, tested or worse, shattered—even when a change would or might be so much for the better. One reason for and common manifestation of this bias is that Facebook and other “likes” attract “likes”.

In psychology, this is called “cognitive dissonance reduction”—the tendency to reject beliefs incompatible with our current set of personal and group beliefs, especially those incompatible with the ones we really like, are encouraged or expected to like, or are afraid to give up.

Alternatively, this might more simply be called “cognitive inertia”.

Conversely, yet equivalently, “cognitive consonance increase”, a.k.a. “cognitive momentum” [to coin two phrases], is precisely the main function and consequence of the propagation and confirmation of platitudes and common sense.  

Because of its built-in mental inertia, cognitive dissonance reduction invites a number of questions: How and why is it ever resisted, how does it ever fail, how can our beliefs change despite it, and how well does it work?

You would think that if our core beliefs are unhappy, anxiety-inducing ones—e.g., belief in the certainty of eternal Hell-fire for having eaten beef last Friday or pork ever, we would dump them given the first chance, invitation or evidence to do so. But frequently, if not generally, we don’t.

Why? Because of “what if?” fears—fears of the awful consequences of breaking with the faith, fears of losing hope or one’s way, of seeming “different”, or of failing to heed warnings, that, despite counter-evidence, remain too frightening to ignore or too valuable to lose. The Creationism-Evolution debate and the cognitive inertia on both sides of that paradigm war should suffice as an illustration.

Indeed, many people will be so fearful of alternatives to what they already believe or get so excited when reminded that their beliefs are correct, that they will launch into a frenzy of “likes” and “tweets” to comfortingly share self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, group-reassuring common sense, truisms, dogmatic paradigms and biases.

Example: rival “progressive” and “tea party” factions gleefully blogging confirmations of the worst, the most simplistic and ugliest well-worn, stereotypical accusations about each other, e.g., at Glen Beck’s Theblaze.com.

So, if cognitive inertia rules, how is it ever overcome? Physics provides the answer: Inertia rules, unless an external force strong enough to overcome it is applied, e.g., something like a gigantic boulder crashing into and derailing a speeding train.

That boulder can be the irresistible and undeniable weight of empirical evidence; peer pressure; institutional pressures—e.g., from church, state or universities; some cataclysmic awesome event, such as bubonic plague that shakes faith in everything; the aging and passing, without replacement, of ideological or dogma spokespersons; or anything else that causes a “paradigm shift”.

[For the seminal account of this process, see Harvard historian Thomas Kuhn’s now-classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.]

Boring vs. Exciting Truisms

One tricky challenge in assessing popular and pious platitudes is to analytically distinguish familiar truisms, such as “always be polite during an interview”, whose or when their confirmation is merely boring from those whose or when their confirmation is very exciting.

Generally, confirmation of a personal or group paradigm or belief that, although fervently defended by insiders, is hotly disputed, or, worse, ignored by outsiders, will always be seen as exciting.

Also, confirmation of “badge beliefs”—beliefs that, however commonsensical or trivial, nonetheless serve as badges of group, craft or faith membership will almost always be exciting for those who need them. On the other hand, confirmation of something that everybody already believes will be seen as utterly boring.

Why a Confirmation Bias?

A second challenge is to explain the “confirmation bias” that inclines us to favor evidence that confirms, rather than challenges, our entrenched beliefs and values, including business platitudes and advice.

The simplest explanation is that because change generally requires a reallocation or comparatively sizeable initial expenditure of energy—mental or otherwise—than maintaining the status quo.

Such change is very likely to be resisted, at first, even though in the long run that change will save, harness, generate or extract more energy than resisting it or preservation of the status quo would.

The cartoon Neanderthal Croodsdebating whether to flee an advancing cataclysm and leave their “Plato’s cave” life behind, perfectly illustrates this process of cognitive inertia and energic conservatism. “New is always bad”—even in the face of undeniable bad news.

The Logical Structure of Successful Platitudes

A third challenge is to understand the deep, logical structure of successful truisms, i.e., of exalted platitudes and celebrated commonsense advice—especially as they function to confirm and celebrate biases and beliefs. It is to this challenge that I now turn.

Contrast the trivial job-hunt advice above with the following hypothetical, unconventional list and compare the appeal and usefulness of the two lists:

1. Approach random strangers on the street and ask them whether they have any job leads.

2. Make employers find and want you by posting a weird video on YouTube or standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board resume and clown face paint.

3. Evaluate the explicit or implied prospective employer evaluations of you and short-list the most positive ones, irrespective of the job.

4. Keep all prospective, interested employers dangling as long as possible, while grooming the best of the pack.

5. Try to interview the employers more than they interview you during your interviews.

6. Play the offers against each other to create a bidding battle for you and make a choice. If there are no offers, return to step #1.

Now, ask yourself which of these two lists you would tweet, “like”, share or g+1 to others, if you must choose between them.

If you chose the first, the list of obvious truisms, because the second seems “too weird” or ill-advised, you should note that the second is, in some sense, equivalent to the first, when viewed at the same level of abstraction as the first list.

Both offer a look—>find—>evaluate—>apply—>interview—>accept-or-start-over sequence of steps. However, the second list is, as advice, “riskier”, because of its vulnerable combination of concreteness-plus-generality.

What makes it more vulnerable to disconfirmation is that it more severely limits the ways things should be done while still claiming they always or usually work as well as their counterparts in list #1.

For example, list #1’s “look for a job” allows for countless ways to choose from to do that, whereas list #2’s “approach random strangers” suggests limiting the ways of looking for a job to just one, as sufficient, while nonetheless suggesting the same general success as the broader “look for a job” enjoys.  

Any advice that suggests that exactly one way of doing something will generally succeed is far likelier to be unsound advice than advice that says among potentially infinite ways of looking for a job, various among them will generally succeed.

What I mean by this is that even though the most vulnerable beliefs are of the “all”, “always” and “every” form—since a single counter-example will disprove them, those that, in addition, have very specific terms are the most vulnerable.

Note that the first list safely blends abstraction with generality: Because what is stated in the list is highly abstract, it is more likely to be generally true.

For example, “many mammals make great pets—so get one” is more likely, as advice, to be factually and tactically sound [because there are many ways for it to be so] than “many wolverines make great pets—so get one”.

Accordingly, if you want to popularize your own platitudes and advice, follow the following non-platitudinous advice:

1. Make sure it is abstract, but minimally general—e.g., “Sometimes you should do what makes you happy” or “Always behave professionally in a job interview, unless an alternative is both allowed and useful.” In formulating this kind of advice, “with the exception of” or “notwithstanding” clauses are very useful to ensure “evidential immunity” to counter-examples and refutation.

2. Take great care when offering advice that is the opposite, namely, very concrete, but maximally general, yet somehow credible in terms of the shared paradigm, e.g. “Always and only look out for #1!”

If this otherwise highly vulnerable advice is already generally accepted by your audience, it will circulate among them like gospel. Make sure it is generally accepted, however specific it may be, e.g., “Never wear mismatched shoes to a job interview”.

2. Note that “and/or” advice will be safer and more popular than “only” advice. For example, “Look for a job on job boards, in newspapers, in social media, through personal contacts, at job fairs and/or in any other way you can imagine” makes for a much more successful platitude than “Look for a job by asking random strangers” or “Only trust personal contacts when looking for a job.”

3. Opt for “or” advice rather than “and” advice when there are multiple, sufficient independent paths to success. For example, “Choose X or Y or Z as a path to success”, rather than “Choose X and Y and Z” [unless X, Y and Z are together necessary and sufficient for success, as explained next].

4. Opt for “and” advice rather than “exclusive ‘or’” advice when only a combination of factors can guarantee success. For example, “Choose X and Y and Z as a path to success”, rather than “Choose X or Y or Z as a path to success”—which should be obvious when none among X, Y and Z will be enough by itself.

To maximize your chances of successfully promoting your favorite platitudes, be sure to review the immediately preceding #1, #2, #3 and #4.

Not only #1, #2, #3 or #4.

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