Are We Scared Of The Dark?
The Good Old Status Quo - The Killer of Dreams.
Key words: Status quo, risk, risk-aversion, loss-aversion, fear of the unknown, sunk cost fallacy
This is not an article about darkness in its literal sense. It is about darkness as a metaphor for the unknown, but unknown, which hides a world of opportunities.
We all have dreams, some smaller, others larger, but we all do. Had it not been for dreaming, the world wouldn't be what it is today. Yuval Harari, the best-selling author of Sapiens, referred to us as Gods in his later book Homos Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. We are not Gods, but we have managed to conquer the land, the sea and the sky, and for the last 60 years, we have been reaching for the stars. None of this would have been possible without brave and brilliant men and women pushing limits, asking for more, and defying odds.
Yet, many of us are often held back by what is probably the single biggest hurdle standing in the way between where we are now and where we want to be tomorrow - the good old status quo. Nothing has killed more dreams than the inability to act. As the famous ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky has brilliantly put it, "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take".
Status quo is this sweet spot, right in our comfort zone where we are comfortable and life is easy. I want to make an important clarification - comfortable and happy are very different things. Many of us are unhappy with particular aspects of our lives, whether this is work, relationships or life in general. But we have been in this situation for long enough to have grown accustomed to it and accept it for given. This is exactly the treacherous side of the status quo - it holds us in a gentle grip, where over time we get so used to it, that things just seem to be getting easier, and hence provide little motivation to move away. I will make a reference here to the Lotus tree in Greek mythology, which kept Odysseus and his men trapped on an island, under the sweet veil of laziness, forgetfulness and apathy as long as they were eating its fruits.
We all know someone (or maybe this someone is us), who is unhappy in their workplace, relationship or anything else they do, yet they hardly ever do anything to change this. It is easy, the status quo provides familiarity, ease and sense of control. When we have been doing a job for a few years, it might not be our dream job, it might not give us the satisfaction or progression we want, but we know it inside out, it becomes easy and easy is what we like. At the same time, getting out of this comfort zone carries a host of disadvantages - hassle to look and find something else, it will be harder as we have to learn from scratch and adapt to the new place, and not to underestimate the risk factor (what if we cannot find another job, or we do but it is unstable?). Let me briefly look into some of the key elements, which support our preference for the status quo.
Fear Of The Unknown
Abandoning our comfort zone requires a change, and a change, by definition, carries an element of risk. It requires leaving what we know and what we are used to, and accepting that out there, in the darkness, there could be something we won't like. Fearing what we might find out there is perfectly normal, it is an evolutionary instinct. Animals usually stick to their own habitat, to a particular area they know, otherwise they could quickly turn into a predator's lunch. Yes, we are not antelopes or zebras, but our survival instincts tell us to stick to what we know. At the end of the day, our brains are wired to ensure our survival, not gains.
An interesting study, published in 2016 by a group of researchers shed some light the unknown and our innate fear of it. Curiously, the study demonstrated that the unknown is more stressful than knowing for a fact that something will have negative consequences. For example, not knowing if you will be made redundant in the latest round of redundancies in your company is more stressful for people than knowing they are one of the unfortunate culprits.
Coined by two of the leading scholars in behavioural economics and decision making, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (the latter a Noble laureate), loss-aversion relates to human preference to avoid losses compared to similar gains. Put simply, we would much rather not lose £100, than win £100. This has massive implications for the status quo. If changing something has the potential for a gain, but also the potential for a similar loss (if things don't work out), we would much rather avoid the loss, which in this case would mean not changing anything at all. It is estimated that the potential gain should be 2.5 times higher than the potential loss, for us to take a leap of faith and face the risk. These are pretty solid odds in favour of the status quo.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
In business and accounting, sunk cost is a cost that has been incurred and cannot be recovered. When making decisions about the future, sunk costs should be ignored and the business case re-assed. Put very simply, when we have a project, which at some point has been deemed unviable and the future cost outweighs the perceived benefits, the logical course of action is to accept the cost to date as sunk and stop the project. In this case, at least future costs would be saved, even if what has been incurred already is unrecoverable. Unfortunately, we are not completely logical beings. When we invest time, resources, hopes, and efforts into something, we become emotionally invested in its success and giving up effectively means accepting failure (not a good move for our egos or face in front of others). A simple example might be required to illustrate the point. Imagine you have been in a relationship with someone for 5 years, but it has not been going well for some time. However, over this period, you have invested feelings, resources, and probably most importantly a lot of time in this relationship. If you cannot see things getting better or the relationship going anywhere, logic dictates you should put an end to it. If only it was this easy. If you do, you will, effectively, have to face the fact that you have just wasted 5 years of your life, accept that you will have to invest more, building a new relationship from scratch, and disappoint all the relatives, who have been waiting for a wedding all this time (the last argument is a joke). So what do you do instead? You cling onto that 1% of possibility in a wonderful imaginary world where things will turn around and you will live happily ever after.
But, no need to feel bad if this is you. Just remember the experience the British and French governments had with the Concorde programme. This was an initiative by the two governments to create a supersonic plane flying over the Atlantic for under an hour, which was initially estimated to cost £150-170 million and have planes flying by 1970. When the planes actually went into service, six years after the planned date, the two governments had spent a total of £1.3 billion on the project. Of course, they knew a lot earlier that this was a commercial disaster and they would never be able to recover the investment, but they kept pouring money in a desperate attempt to save face in front of the public, as opposed to pulling the trigger. If highly qualified experts and government officials can fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy (or as it also became known as the Concorde fallacy), so can you!
Risk-aversion is status quo's best friend. An element of risk is inherent in every change, and our innate risk-aversion does not help the case for progress. By nature, most people are uncomfortable taking risks. If introducing a change to our lives carries the possibility of wasting time, money, and efforts, maybe in more extreme cases ruining our lives, we'd rather not do it. A study shows that six in ten Britons admit they are afraid of taking risks, most of which quote the possibility of negative consequences and losses as the main result. This is not just Britons, of course. Like I said before, our brains are wired for survival, not gains.
Factors Impacting Our Attitude Towards Risk And The Status Quo
From all the above, it really sounds like we are all pro status quo and anti any change. This, of course, is not true. I am merely stating some of the key reasons why many of us feel comfortable with the current situation and hence, reluctant to change. However, there are various factors impacting our attitude towards taking risks or maintaining the status quo. I will briefly list these, without going into details. Some of the key ones are: observed behaviour (from parents and social circles), cultural differences, socio-economics factors (wealthier people are generally more open to risks) and genetics (a specific gene has been identified, which determines the level of our innate risk-aversity). When all of these, and many more, mix together, we end up with a virtually endless continuum of risk attitudes.
How Can We Get Over The Status Quo Bias?
Again, I won't be covering this in much detail here, as not the focus of this article, but let me call out a few tips, which could help.
Do a reality check from time to time. It is easy to get sucked up into the habit and keep things as they are. But only because, you have been doing something for a long time, it does not mean this is the best option. Challenge the status quo by asking yourself, "Am I still getting what I want and need in the current situation". If the answer is no, then it is time for a change.
Plan and risk assess - darkness is only scary when it is unknown and unquantifiable. Yes, a change will usually require taking risks, but there are few risks in this world we cannot mitigate or control. Don't stop with identifying the risks as a deterrent to making a beneficial change. There are many ways to manage them - reducing the likelihood of occurrence, reducing the impact if it does, transferring the risk, etc. A plan will help to put a structure in place and manage the unknown.
Let go of the idea that everything must be controlled - yes, introducing a change or starting something new would probably mean you will not have as much control over the situation as you do now, but this is not a bad thing. We love the sense of control and hate the idea of relinquishing it. However, we need to accept that there is always going to be some element of risk and things we cannot control. Full control is an illusion, and a powerful one. Only once we embrace the chaos, i.e., what we cannot control, can we reach for the stars.
Baby steps - if you are afraid of water, you don't have to jump into the deep end. Attitude towards risk can be managed, like many other things. Dip your toes, test the water, until ready to make a bigger move.
The first step towards leaving the comfort zone is understanding the factors, which motivate our preference for staying in it. Only once we accept them, can we start working towards improving things. There are many reasons why we like the status quo, and which make it hard to leave it. This is perfectly understandable, but if we want to grow and improve, we need to step out of the light of what we know and makes us feel comfortable. We need to keep challenging and pushing boundaries. I will conclude with a brilliant thought by the American theologian William Shedd, "A ship is safe in harbour, but that is not what ships are for".
Disclaimer: this article represents an oversimplified view of the world, more of a conceptual framework, which largely ignores the emotional side of things and various complexities in real life.
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References: 1. The Independent. (2018). Six in 10 British people are afraid of taking risks, study finds. [online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/afraid-risks-adventure-safety-cautious-people-uk-survey-study-a8238971.html. 2. Samuelson, W., and Zeckhauser, R. 1988. "Status Quo Bias in Decision Making," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (1:1), pp. 7-59.
3. de Berker, A.O., Rutledge, R.B., Mathys, C., Marshall, L., Cross, G.F., Dolan, R.J. and Bestmann, S. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications, 7(1). 4. Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985), The psychology of sunk costs. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.
5. Ferreira, M. (n.d.). The Concorde Fallacy and why people make bad decisions. [online] creativesamba.substack.com. Available at: https://creativesamba.substack.com/p/the-concorde-fallacy-and-why-people-22e [Accessed 5 Apr. 2021].