While I was at the market today, I noticed that a buyer at one of the meat stalls that I visited frequently was reluctant to even sample a new meat that had recently come out.
I have noticed that people do not often like to try new things. It is not just food, but everything, from new computer operating systems (witness the challenges that Linux enthusiasts have had getting their friends and family to try out Linux), to visiting somewhere that we have never been.
This can include new anything really. We do seem to have an inherent mechanism that avoids uncertainty. We do not like change, even where it may have the potential to benefit us. There seems to be something suppressing curiosity in many people.
I am not saying that we should be pursuing novelty for its own sake. Indeed, that is a logical fallacy. Nor should we be “trying” something that we know can be quite harmful for us (ex: I have met people who have tried to talk others into going into “extreme” sports, while trying to insist that a person “won’t get hurt for sure”). However, there seems to be a resistance to change even when it can benefit us. In the case of that reluctant customer, she did not have any food allergies or reasons to avoid that food (Ex: cultural, as she had consumed meat from the same species before). In the end, she liked the sample that she had been so unwilling to try.
I think that the question “why” may be one of the most important things that we ask.
Why is that? Why do we not want to be curious, to try something odd?
- Yes there are times when the unknown can hurt. Psychological studies have shown humans to be loss averse after all. The biggest thing to do with change I think is to research a topic, to be transparent about the risks, and then to work to mitigate those risks. In some cases, it may not even be the loss itself, but the fear of loss that exceeds any plausible outcome.
- Fear of ripple effects or the implications of some new discovery. When something affects our lives, it often does not have just an isolated impact on one area of our lives. It can make us change. This is especially important when changing somebody’s worldview. I once spoke to someone who was a very politically right-wing libertarian. They felt that the world was a fair place (the just world fallacy). He viewed society as a meritocracy and that everyone deserved their fate. I asked, how can society be a meritocracy if people do not start equally? A very wealthy child has a background that will help them succeed, from a family that invests in their education, gives them financial literacy, network connections, and invests in their child. By contrast, the very poor will have to deal with parents that may not have the time or ability to invest in their child, and the stresses of poverty. How can that lead to a meritocracy? For that person, the implications of what I said dawned on them. I think they feared to consider the effect of my statement on their worldview and were afraid of it. It undermined his ideology.
- Concerns about their ability to be competent. Whenever you start a new sport, or a new anything, you are pretty bad at it. That is the reality. Then over time, skills are built up, as is confidence. Starting something new often means that apart from what knowledge you can transfer over from the past, it is ground zero all over again.
- Losing face with colleagues and peers. Being a novice at something is one part, but looking bad in front of your friends, colleagues, and family makes it far worse. Saving face is not as important for people in the Western world as it is in Eastern cultures, but it is still embarrassing to lose, to make amateur mistakes, and to look like an idiot. That can be true even with the most understanding of colleagues and friends. Without that support, it can be even worse.
- Loss of control. I recall once reading that in terms of fatalities per passenger kilometer traveled, that aircraft were much lower than automobiles, but the perceived lack of control harmed the perception of the flying public. Apparently the September 11, 2001 attacks indirectly contributed to more deaths from traffic incidents by reducing air travel. The point is that we humans like being in control. We like feeling like we are in control.
- We don’t like surprises, especially when they are of the unpleasant sort. They force us to immediately react and cause great stress, even if they lead to a better long-term life.
- The “good enough” situation. We would rather settle for a suboptimal solution that works well enough rather than to find an ideal solution. In some cases, the ideal solution’s benefits may exceed the costs that we as individuals must expend deviating from the “good enough”. In other cases, many people lack the curiosity or the ability to find a better method.
I think that the reasons above are rational. There are very real reasons to dislike change. It also makes me despair at times. I am not perfect and I do not always like change myself. I should be the first to admit that.
However, there may be irrational reasons as well. Maybe apart from the reasons above, there is a certain intellectual laziness, a sort of conservatism to preserve the status quo that is built into us? Why do we fear change that can benefit us, even when the benefits or potential for benefits vastly exceed the potential risks?
I think that even when life is not going perfectly, there is an inbuilt conservatism in us that makes us resentful of change, even if it has the potential to make us better. Another problem seems to be that curiosity seems to be suppressed. We often hear the expression “curiosity killed the cat”, and there are legends in many cultures warning against curiosity.
Perhaps it came from evolutionary biology, the desire to minimize energy and effort expenditures. Remember in nature, for an organism (or in our case, our hunter-gatherer ancestors), energy would have been scarce, so this “minimize energy trait” would have been a trait that would have been selected for. Sadly, this is no longer appropriate in our modern society. For us, food and energy are no longer scarce. There doe seem to be an unwillingness amongst most people to expend energy on obtaining knowledge, beyond immediate short-term gratification.
The evolutionary biology hypothesis is just that a hypothesis. I think though that finding out the real reason may be one of the most important questions out there. Why don’t we like trying something new? What can we do to improve that?