April 18, 2014

Martha Stewart, the Christmas Ham, and Status Quo Bias

Just Because Something Is Old Does Not Mean It Is Right

A significant error in thinking comes from people using “It has always been this way” as justification for the state of things.  As if, somehow, precedence confers legitimacy.  Just because something is old does not mean it is right.  Being long-established does not mean optimal performance.  This is a particular problem for larger businesses and institutions, including non-profits.

It is a stupid argument.  It should be self-evident to anyone of even modest intelligence that all established practices had to begin because someone, somewhere, at some time, examined a situation and said, “This is how it needs to be.”  (Or worse, acted without reflection.)  He or she may have had reasons, circumstances, political considerations, or resource needs that are not relevant today.  These behaviors were then replicated by children, grandchildren, employees, and subordinates.  They often remain long after the original reason for their existence has passed. 

A key way to improve your chances of being successful in life is to learn to overcome the tendency of acceding to “the way it has always been.”  You brain should immediately respond, “So what?”.

What Martha Stewart and a Christmas Ham Can Teach You About Status Quo Bias

Martha Stewart tells a story that she used to cut the ends off her Christmas hams because her mother always did.  One day, Martha’s daughter asked, “Mom, why do you cut the ends of the ham off?  They seem perfectly good.”  Martha responded, “I don’t know.  I’ll call grandma.”  

Martha Stewart and Her Daughter

Martha Stewart and Her Daughter

Turns out, that when Martha was a little girl, the only pan grandma had in the house was too small for the typical grocery store ham at the time.  Instead of getting a new pan, grandma had sliced the ends off to make it fit.  

Without thinking, Martha Stewart had replicated this behavior her entire life, despite not facing the same problem.  It was to her credit – and the fresh perspective of her daughter – that the mistake was realized.  Martha didn’t mindlessly outsource her thinking once the question was put on the table.  She did not respond, “This is how we do it because this is how it has always been done.”  Instead, she tried to find out why.  All wise action must rest on a sound why.

That is worthy of praise.  I will not outsource my thinking.  You shouldn’t, either.  Accepting someone else’s judgment without critically examining it is an incredible moral failure.  You should question and learn everything you can so that you are able to trust your own opinion.  Like Goldovsky Errors, this is sometimes easier to accomplish if you introduce inexperienced, new people.

An Example of Why Relying on Past Decisions for Existing Ones Can Be a Mistake

Here is another example that should be familiar to most people who grew up in Western culture and fits with the food theme of our Martha Stewart story.  Take the prohibition the ancient Hebrews had against food eaten on the third day, calling it unclean on religious grounds.  

This steadfast law was ultimately enshrined in Leviticus 19:7.  Today, we ignore it because it is a stupid rule.  Why?  Scientists discovered refrigeration technology and microbiology.  We now know that bacteria grow, breaking down organic matter through the process of decomposition, and that the by-product of eating those germs is sickness.  We also know that refrigerating food, particularly meat, can prolong freshness as the lower temperature results in a sub-optimal environment for cell replication, inhibiting the speed at which leftovers spoil.  

Were the ancient Hebrews foolish for believing leftovers to be sinful?  No.  It was perfectly rational at the time.  It made sense.  It was good policy.  It saved lives and, quite literally, altered history as it determined who lived and died.  They likely observed a significant pattern between old meals and food poisoning death or sickness, identifying a correlation.  They had neither the knowledge, nor words, to describe the source but once humanity figured out the culprit, society wisely threw the old scripture into the dustbin of history.  It is no longer relevant.  I have never heard a single religious authority speak out against reheating leftovers despite its prohibition.

Where You Are Likely To See the “It Has Always Been This Way” Thinking

Unfortunately, “it has always been this way” thinking is everywhere around you.  It is caused by a mental model called status quo bias.  Many men and women, particularly those who have something to protect, are fearful, or lack resources (such as intelligence or flexibility) to deal with change, default to it.  For some people (the last time I read about it, the figure was between 5% and 10% of a population), status quo bias is so powerful that they will resist all changes, no matter how good.  They will fight to preserve whatever world they found at birth, even if that world is one of slavery and death, as in Ancient Rome.

You see this mistake in business.  Companies refuse to upgrade their software.  My favorite furniture company in the world still uses a DOS-based ordering system because that is what is used in headquarters at Omaha.  You might try to volunteer for a school committee and come up with a new idea to raise money for band instruments or sports uniforms, only to be told, “We don’t do that.  This is what we have always done [insert name of activity here].”  You may find a way to improve efficiency and cut costs, only to be told to go back to the old way, simply because change scares your coworkers.  Women fighting for the right to vote were told that they should accept their lower status because, “it has always been” that way.  Slaves struggling for freedom were informed, “this is how it has always been”.  Even today, in what is arguable the largest social issue of our time (marriage equality), the single most common argument you hear against it is – wait for it – “marriage has always been“.  

Look for it.  You will start seeing it everywhere.  Status quo bias is enormously powerful.

How to you fix it?  Unfortunately, it is difficult.  Status quo bias goes back to the very root of humanity’s need to survive.  It is an evolutionary adaptation that serves us well on a macro-scale.  Great leaders, business people, thinkers, and artists don’t fall for it.  Sometimes, past practices make sense.  Often, the conditions that led to their necessity, if they ever existed, are no longer relevant.  

All you can do is watch out for the trap, and avoid falling into it.  The bottom line: Never, under any circumstances, accept “it has always been this way” as justification for any position.  It is inconsequential.  Someone, somewhere had to be the first to make it so.  The fact you come after them, and arrive at your conclusion later on the timeline, is merely an issue of chronology.  

  • Ian Francis

    I have found a big reason for status quo bias is a fear of taking responsibility, either actually, or in a person’s mind.  If things stay the same and something goes wrong, its not really your fault because you didn’t come up with the idea.  You may still get blamed, but you can rationaize it in your head to make yourself feel better.  If you change things and something goes wrong, now it is unequivocally your fault.  That also goes the other way, however.  If you increase productivity by 200%, you can proudly say that you did it.  People would rather not risk failure though, so they settle for mediocrity.  Then they wonder why they don’t succeed in life. 

    This idea stems from the idea that doing nothing is not the same as doing something.  For example, if you observe a mugging, have plenty of opportunity to call the police, or are in a prime position to stop the mugging altogether without putting yourself in undo harm, but do nothing, you have not committed a crime.  If you knowlingly drive the mugger to the street corner, however, regardless of whether you had any other involvement in the actual mugging, you have committed a crime.  Both events led to the mugging, but only one is a crime because only one is an action.  Applying this to status quo bias, doing nothing even in the face of evidence that the status quo is wrong, is not considered the same as doing something and causing a problem. 

  • Yaacovp

    I am puzzled by your inference. The verse in Leviticus is referring specifically to the peace offering. All other offerings are either not eaten at all or must be eaten that day or night. Using your logic I can counter that leftovers should not be eaten on the second day — or that we should not eat at all!

    I tend to think that life-lessons are being tought here, not dietary lessons.

    Big fan of your blog and all that you do,

    Yaacov