Three reasons you confuse familiar with better (yes, you)
And what to do about it
In response to faster driving routes, healthier diet choices, or more robust ways of working (no you really don’t need to print your emails), a colleague of mine often refuses to change, proudly proclaiming “I like to stick to what I know”.
It’s as if familiar is a big enough selling point to outweigh any possible benefit of change.
Interestingly, despite the emotional barriers, as soon as he’s dragged into trying the alternative he rarely goes back to his old ways.
How many times have you stuck to something familiar because it’s something you know?
According to Freud’s Pleasure Principle, we are biologically driven to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.
The ‘utility maximization’ assumption in Classical Economics rests on a similar framework. Simply put, we make decisions based on whatever gets us the most stuff, because stuff gives us pleasure.
“Naturally” I hear you think. “Thousands of priggish academics can’t be wrong. And who doesn’t like stuff?”
Remember that time you told your friend to leave their douchey partner/ job/ living situation, only to watch them make excuses and stay?
Or the time you could have gone to the circus with a good chance of winning the lottery, but chose to stay home and watched BoJack reruns instead?
Cognitive biases are decision-making patterns that lead you to make irrational decisions, and often leave you worse off.
They are similar across most human populations, and heavily influence how you develop ideas of success and failure, as well as the methods you use to navigate daily life.
They explain why those in power stay in power, and how we carry on with traditions that make no sense.
Cognitive Bias is why you see a ‘bird in your hand’ as more valuable than ‘two in the bush’, even if the two in the bush are bigger, worth more, and fly up to you holding a ‘sure thing’ banner with their beak.
The pleasure principle is true, but more complex than a conscious idea of feeling good.
You also want to feel stable. To make this happen, three change-resistance biases are hard at work keeping you where you are.
- Loss Aversion
Loss Aversion bias shows that humans feel loss more vividly than gains, and thus work harder to avoid loss. In Buddhism, pleasurable experiences are also defined as pain because their loss causes longing and discomfort.
This is part of the reason poker machines spit out small wins, and why the phrase ‘but you’ve come so far’ is incredibly powerful.
Even if the amount is small, gamblers invest more trying to reclaim those lost winnings, compared to if they had never won at all. And let’s face it, life is one big series of gambles.
In the banking industry, little lenience and high fees are linked to late mortgage payments. Studies in Australia show people will do almost anything before they miss a mortgage payment, for fear of losing their house.
I was once asked what would be so bad about skipping a mortgage payment or losing my house — what’s the absolute worst that could happen? To this day I don’t have a truly horrific answer, but the idea still terrifies me.
2. The Endowment Effect
Linked to Loss Aversion is the Endowment Effect, where you tend to ascribe more value to something you already have. If you live in an apartment, you may not value living in a house at whatever the market rate is. You may even feel homes are overpriced.
If you live in a house you relax in the back garden, walk up the stairs of your front porch, and never have to worry about thin walls between you and your neighbor. You are emotionally invested in the house. It becomes valuable. It becomes part of who you are.
The endowment effect is why you are more likely to value your property, or anything else you have, higher than someone else would.
The loss of something you have a relationship with is felt more than the surprise of experiencing something new.
Overarching these ideas of clinging to what you have is Status Quo Bias.
3. Status Quo Bias
Thanks to Status Quo Bias we seek to preserve the familiar, even if it leaves us worse off than the alternative.
In an experiment where people were offered the choice of an unfamiliar paradise or their existing life, they often chose their existing life, citing familiarity as their main reason for the decision.
What do these three biases mean?
You may have noticed a common theme: Change resistance.
Conscious indicators of pleasure are important, because who doesn’t love a fancy house, delicious food and a nice massage?
Equally important is that feeling deep down in our primal brains, which more than anything wants to stick to what it knows.
If you see a businesses offering free trials or other deep discounts to new customers, it’s because if you’re going to overcome change resistance, the incentive has to be incredibly strong.
It may also mean you miss out on a fantastic opportunity to be happier, faster or just generally better off because you’re afraid of change.
Is everyone equally change resistant?
According to Van Edwards, introverted people tend to be more risk averse (preserving the familiar), while extroverts are more likely to be optimistic, and therefore take more risks.
Another theory is that you are a product of your generation. Baby Boomers of the Industrial Revolution, who grew up with scientific management and lifetime employment, may also resist change due to a culture of favoring consistency.
As children of change, Millennials are less likely to stick to something simply because they are accustomed to it. When were you born?
Whatever the reason, these biases exist. They influence what you strive for, and how you strive for it.
Efficiency-bias balance: the good side
Fear not, doing without thinking isn’t all bad. Learning takes energy. Habits and biases enable faster, more accurate decision making while saving your thinking energy for more complex decisions.
Preserving existing patterns, which grow stronger over time even if they’re wrong, is an evolutionary efficiency.
With lower level functions this is beneficial — when you drive to work, make breakfast or brush your teeth on autopilot, you’re freeing up your brain to ponder bigger things like that important presentation for work, or why you work in the first place.
However, this bias can also work against you, as you cling to familiar patterns even if they’re harmful.
You may know that working smarter and being well rested gets better results, yet your primal brain may be conditioned to struggle, even if it’s destructive.
On the other hand, your primal brain may be comfortable procrastinating and daydreaming, while those who are more disciplined achieve more.
We know that goals improve performance. Has this made us happier? Or do we value improvement because it’s familiar?
How to manage change-resistance and make better decisions
Once you learn to recognize these biases, you’ll become better at making decisions that suit you — familiar or otherwise, instead of decisions that suit what you’re accustomed to.
Try managing change-resistance biases by removing the discomfort of change from the equation, or at least become aware of it.
To do this, try small changes in a safe environment. This doesn’t mean painful or harmful. Sitting still for 10 seconds can be uncomfortable, different, and perfectly safe. Yoga is full of safe, unusual exercises.
Get comfortable with the unfamiliar. Recognize it. Push it.
Listen to the thoughts that go through your head when you make a decision.
“This is uncomfortable. I bet this won’t help anyway. I’d be much happier watching telly.”
“What is it specifically that’s uncomfortable? Would I really be better off watching BoJack, or do I just want something familiar?
Once you learn to recognize these thoughts and feeling in a safe place, you may recognize them in other, more chaotic parts of your life.
By becoming more aware of your biases, you’ll be better equipped to know if the change is something to be feared, or an exciting possibility. Usually it’s a bit of both. Only you know what’s best for you