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Status Quo Stickiness
Wisdom Letter #57 | Mind Your Brain
Hello and welcome to The Wisdom Project — your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise.
Today we are talking about Status Quo Bias.
Do you understand inertia?
Think middle-school physics. Think Newton’s first law of motion.
Inertia is the tendency of a body to stick to its current conditions in the absence of an external force. Moving objects tend to stay moving, still objects tend to stay still. Only an outside force can change their current state.
This is so true for us humans as well.
We tend to stick to our defaults more often than not.
Many a times this tendency causes more harm to us than good, but we still prefer the known over the unknown.
This human tendency is called Status Quo Bias.
Boiling Frog Syndrome
Status Quo bias is closely related to the concept of boiling frog syndrome that we keep talking about so often here.
The idea is that if a frog is put in boiling water it will immediately jump out and save itself. But if its put in tepid water and heated slowly then it will cook itself to death. Incremental increase in temperature will not lead the frog to sense the danger of the boiling water.
It will stick to its known conditions even when they are harming it.
It will stick to to the status quo.
Many of us are living like a boiling frog in some aspect of our life.
For some its their physical health, for some its their financial health, and for some its their psychological health.
The Two Forces
If someone told you that you will die of a cardiac arrest tomorrow if you don’t work out today, then you will be immediately seen on the treadmill within an instant.
But if someone told you that you are likely to die of cardiac arrest 30 years from now if you don’t build a daily workout routine from a young age, then there’s little chance that you will act on that information.
You will be a lot more comfortable to stick with the status quo and delay the workout for the proverbial “tomorrow” that never comes.
There are two forces here that will make you act instinctively, highlighted in the two sentences above. The absence of these forces ensures your inaction.
The irony is that most good things in life come from being able to deal with uncertainty over a long period of time. Be it having good health, fulfilling relationships, or substantial wealth.
The roots for our inertia trace back to our evolutionary history. Our prehistoric ancestors preferred the known because that is what helped them survive.
Foraying into the unknown mostly resulted in death or injury to the first men.
Treading on unknown paths meant dealing with wild animals and poisonous plants, the likes of which they had never seen before and had no idea how to deal with.
The Sapiens who were adventurous during those times couldn’t survive the dangers of living in the Savannah. Their genes died out with them.
Modern humans only received the genes of the ancestors who were super-scared of the unknown, and loved to stick to what had helped them live so far.
We see this behavior all around us today.
Right from our politics to our society to our individual selves.
We see incumbent politicians keep getting re-elected into office in spite of poor performance.
We see age old laws being practiced decades after they become irrelevant and obsolete. The colonial era sedition law in India is a prime example.
Social and religious customs being practiced for millennia can also be viewed as sticking to the status quo.
We don’t know the significance of a lot of religious rituals, and even the ones we do know are no more relevant today.
Yet we indulge in them.
We say to ourselves “Why Not ?, What’s the harm?” And that leads to a harmless practice turn into a ritual and then into religious dogma that harms society as a whole.
At a personal level we see the impact of status quo bias almost on a day to day basis. Its apparent in our daily habits and routines, or lack thereof.
Its apparent in our inability to stay physically and financially healthy. In our eating and spending habits, especially in times of stress.
We tend to stick to mental patterns established since childhood and carry them well into our adult lives.
We don’t even realize the reasons for our bad habits.
And we fail incessantly at our attempts to remedy them.
Think craving sugar, or cholesterol or retail therapy for comfort in tough times.
Our brain loves the familiar and the known and it keeps going back to it. Even against our own conscious will.
The Way Out
Its tough getting out of sticky habits that have clung on to our personality for decades. And now we know why.
We also know that our brain craves familiar and known behaviors, irrespective of whether they are good habits or bad.
We can use this knowledge to make new habits and systems that help us overcome our age old harmful patterns and build new healthy habits and routines.
If we can form healthy habits successfully then they will become the status quo, and our brains will revert to them for comfort.
Think of your daily hygiene habits like brushing your teeth or bathing.
They are the prime example of good healthy habits and routines that our brain instinctively falls back on.
They are changes we have made from our prehistoric days. They are simple examples of how we have used status quo bias to our own advantage.
Amidst all the inertia, our prehistoric ancestors managed to protect a certain adventurous streak in them.
A passion for facing the unknown, conquering it, and making it the new known.
That is why they could spread far and wide across the planet. If they were absolutely conservative then our species would only have been limited to a small territory in Africa.
But they were not.
They ventured out. They conquered Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. They travelled far into the sea and discovered Australia. They hiked for months in terrible snow, reached the North pole, and even settled there.
They established new status quos that enabled them to survive and thrive and rule the planet.
And that is the spirit we must approach our default habits and routines with.
We must be aware of what they are, and how are they harming us or helping us.
The goal is to go from negative status quos to positive status quos, one by one.
And the brain will do the rest of the job for us.
Think about it.
This post is part of a series where we explore the complex love-hate relationship between our minds and brains, find out more about the series— Mind Your Brain
Find out more about how the brain functions, read The Brain by David Eagleman. Its a science book written for non-scientists like us.
Checkout Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Its the seminal book on the workings of our minds and systems of thinking.
Also checkout SuperThinking by Gabriel Weinberg & Lauren McCann, its like the bible of cognitive biases and mental models.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the dangers to digital addiction and discussed the Netflix docu-drama “The Social Dilemma”. The movie was, in a way, a direct attack on the largest tech giants of the world, Facebook being the most impacted by the attack.
In a rebuttal to the movie, FB came out with a statement this week. Its a fair and honest response, worthy of the well paid legal team on the tech giant’s rolls.
We have our biases against attention harvesting algorithms and their defenders, but we think its important to have this conversation as a two way dialogue.
Companies like FB and Google play a very important part in the digital lives of a large part of the world. Heck, for many third world users they are the definition of the internet.
Such influence gives them great power and the clichéd great responsibility along with it.
In that spirit, this is an important statement, one that should get all the attention it can get, so do check it out —
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This was Wisdom Letter #57. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 56 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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Aditi & Ayush
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