Blair Currie
Jan 30, 2014

Navigating life through a consistency bias

Who can we trust when the mind rewrites memories to suit current circumstances?

Navigating life through a consistency bias



“Consistency bias” is term coined by Dr. Anthony Greenwald, Adjunct Professor of Marketing and International Business at the University of Washington.  The term refers to phenomenon whereby you think that your opinion now was your opinion in the past, although you may have likely felt differently way back when.Simple examples of consistency bias include thinking that you’ve always liked vegetables when as a child you simply wouldn’t eat them. Your thinking migrated as your attitudes and behaviour changed, although you don’t think it did!

While there can be many nefarious views of consistency bias, the human mind is both consistent and changing, continuously seeking a balance between the known and the new, in a way that allows us to make sense of a rapidly changing world. For example, our mind and memory tend to recall the good and supress the bad, while they also tend to reconstruct the past to make it fit more with the present. This reconstruction provides both a foundation for our current attitudes and beliefs, as well as the ability to change—both necessary characteristics in a changing world.

To understand the importance of a consistency bias, and the need for an ongoing tension between consistency and change, consider where we would be without it. Being consistent allows us to be confident in our abilities, while being able to change allows us to tackle new problems or stretch what we thought was previously not possible. We need both skills, and it's the dynamic balance between the stable and the unstable that keeps us grounded while much around us is changing.

Perhaps most interesting is that this tension exists without us feeling it. We don't see that our position shifts from consistent to dynamic. Nor do we experience the "Cognitive dissonance" of having two minds about the same issue the same time. We simply delete the past and write over it with a present that makes more sense to the current situation—very much the same way a computer record can be updated with new data.

Consistency bias and nostalgia.

Another aspect of consistency bias concerns the idea that we remember more, and indeed more vividly, those events from the more stable times in our lives.For those of us fortunate to grow up in caring families and safe communities, the most consistent times were experienced during our childhood, when our parents, guardians, teachers and the society at large, largely sheltered us from the dramatic changes around us. We had no idea that it was difficult to feed the family or send us to private schools.

This is probably the major reason why nostalgia has such appea— because returning to a more stable time in our lives, gives security and strength. It is also why many of us feel that life was simple and understandable when we were 7 years of age.

What can be done?

Recognizing that our minds optimize the mix of consistency and change and that we have a consistency bias is a large part of the solution. We need to see the signs and know how to make adjustments. A real world example can help.

A good example of consistency bias is the way Baby Boomers and Generation X view Millennials. They see them a spoiled self-centric individuals, but don't realize that these Boomer and Gen X had very similar attitudes and behaviour as the Gen Ys currently have.

We need to become more adept at putting ourselves in others' shoes.

As marketers we can also take advantage of the consisteny bias, as on some level we all must expect that it exists. Film and television writers understand this when they create movies and television programs based on nostalgia. We can use this in marketing communications as well.


In applying this thinking I'd like to start by revisiting a previous post written for Campaign Asia. In this post, I expounded on Anais Nin's maxim that "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are". Now knowing that a consistency bias might exist, I'd like to restate this as "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are, until that's inconvenient for us".

The Rising Sun









Senior leader with solid track record managing creative, digital and media agencies across Asia Pacific (from bases in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Dubai), Canada and the US. Over Over 25 years experience building FMCG and Technology brands. Blair now works as VP Marketing for a global "Connected car" company.

The article first appeared on

Campaign India

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