A Short Taxonomy of Denial and Mulishness

“You can beat 40 scholars with one fact, but you can’t beat one idiot with 40 facts.”Mevlana

Watching a fly repeatedly bonk into a window to get outside we shake our heads. That fly seems like the dumbest thing on earth, but if we encountered an invisible force field preventing us from leaving the house through an open door, I bet we’d spend half an hour throwing ourselves at it. The moment we figured out a practical solution we’d drop the failed approach and never look back. Of course, right?

In many aspects of life, the answer is no. The average human being probably has more than one life issue where they reject solutions and embrace failure. We may be more loyal to our failures than our stated goals.

This behavior is known as Escalation of Commitment and the mindset enabling it is called: The Sunk Cost Fallacy.


Escalation of commitment is a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from a decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the behavior instead of altering course. The actor maintains behaviors that are irrational, but align with previous decisions and actions.

Economists and behavioral scientists use a related term, Sunk-Cost Fallacy (aka commitment bias), to describe the justification of increased investment of money, time, lives, etc. in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment (“sunk cost”) despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, beginning immediately, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.


The classic example is people who go bust on a stock purchase by tenaciously riding it down one devaluation after another until it craters. From the outside, it looks like they drove off a cliff despite having every opportunity to …not drive off a cliff! In any investment, there are more things at stake than the obvious ones. Internally, they made a series of decisions shaped by loyalty, denial, magical thinking, social embarrassment, AND their earlier decisions.

Here are two likely areas to make you hunker in the bunker and here is what that sounds like:


  • We just need to get past this rough patch.
  • It just seems exhausting to start over and we’ve been through so much together.
  • He says he wants to change.
  • I couldn’t bear that “I told you so” look from friends and family. Even having to hear all the sincere sympathy would crush me.
  • Nobody is super happy all the time, don’t be such a princess.
  • The kids would be so disappointed, what sort of an example would I be setting?
  • I can’t even think about that with so much going on.

The Job:

  • Only 9 more years.
  • I’m lucky to have this in the current economy. I’d be an idiot to jump ship now.
  • I have no idea what I’d do instead.
  • It’s not so bad, I kind of feel at home here.
  • My family would think I was crazy. Everyone is counting on me holding it together.
  • Who would I even be if I wasn’t this?

Most of us are caught somewhere between compromise and refusing to compromise, a place that isn’t quite either: living in half-assed misery and so-so happiness. I’m not suggesting everyone should cash in their chips on commitments and choices. I’m just audio micing some of the most common voices in the head as we mull things over. Many of the voices aren’t even this obvious, they surface as sighs and twinges of regret that we dutifully ignore.

Of course in culture and politics, we begin to encounter philosophical and team-based intransigence.

  • Belief perseverance is when the belief hardens and becomes MORE resistant when it encounters new and contradictory or debunking information. When you go to a climate change denier with scientific facts they come away less confident about Science.
  • Cognitive inertia is the persistence of our style of resisting new information, our attitudes, and approaches to examining our beliefs. We may feel a lack of motivation to take things seriously or display a condescending impatience toward other opinions for example.
  • True believer syndrome refers to clinging to thoroughly debunked or disproven beliefs. This is a good place to mention Apophenia which overlaps a bit. Either google it or take a look at my article “Apophenia: The liar inside” it’s basically being swallowed whole by an idea.
  • The Asch Conformity Experiments were a series of studies directed by Solomon Asch studying if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group and the effect of such influences on beliefs and opinions. We are more deeply wired into the reactions of those around us than we know. If you cave in to outside pressure it’s generally something that doesn’t feel volitional. It’s more like something you observe yourself automatically doing than something you choose to do after reflection. This the painful filter that conscience or bravery must battle through to take an unpopular stand.

“Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results”Not Albert Einstein as it turns out

When you consider all this auto-pilot cussedness you have to wonder what the hell is wrong with us. Don’t we sound just awful? When beliefs are threats to the safety and autonomy of a community they are clearly toxic. The beliefs of Nazis or the Khmer Rouge are cultural poison gas and the most common sense response is hitting them with a frying pan till they stop moving.

But day to day human inertia and resistance, even when it’s infuriatingly dumb, is a feature, not a bug. From nature’s point of view, we are a hive species that operates through massed individual actions but above the pay grade of those individuals to interpret. Your prickly intransigence in certain areas is pretty much your marching orders from human central. Whether you are conservative, progressive, religious, atheist, narcissist, or concerned citizen you are a die-cast component of a bottom-up, beyond-control species life script.