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Why Do Humans Resist Change?

A new study finds that monkeys are more cognitively flexible than we are.

Geralt/Pixabay / Used with Permission
Is your way the best way?
Source: Geralt/Pixabay / Used with Permission

Do you sometimes insist on doing things “your way,” or the “old way” even when presented with a shortcut that would help you more quickly achieve your goal? That’s a common form of cognitive bias, a likely unconscious process that involves clinging to a belief system even when we are presented with a more efficient solution. You may ask: “So, what?” What difference does it make if you take an old approach to solve a problem, as long as it works? The problem, researchers say, is that old ways don't always work best, because sticking with what we already know to be true, with what is familiar and embedded in our memories, can sometimes result in biased, distorted, or irrational decision-making.

Monkeys, on the other hand, are much more open to switching to more efficient strategies to achieve their goals, outperforming humans when it comes to tests of cognitive flexibility, according to a behavioral study from Georgia State University, published in a September 2019 issues of Nature’s Scientific Reports. The study, which included 60 humans, 7 rhesus macaques, and 22 capuchin monkeys, tested the theory that our working memory and rote learning influences whether we stick to previously learned behaviors rather than develop or learn new and more efficient strategies to resolve a problem or reach a goal.

Both the human and primate participants were taught strategies to achieve simple goals and receive a reward, which took the form of recognition of achievement for the humans and banana pellets for the primates. They were then shown a shortcut that would help them reach their goal and receive their rewards sooner. The macaques and capuchins were significantly more likely to adopt new and more efficient shortcuts to attaining their goals than humans. When the benefits of using a simpler, more direct approach became apparent, however, humans were more likely to get on board.

Even when humans decided to use a shortcut, however, it took them much longer to accept and use the new strategy than the monkeys, and a significant number—almost one-third of participants—still resisted and used the old approach. Previous studies have shown that, given a choice, other primates, such as chimpanzees and baboons, are also more willing than humans to use shortcuts than humans.

Often, there is a good reason to stick to the tried and true. And while a newer or alternative approach to a problem may be more efficient, to the individual, learning and using that approach may not appear to be. We may not accept that the familiar rules no longer provide the best solution or that a new strategy could work better. We know there’s more than one way to achieve a goal, and we choose to use that which is most familiar and most comfortable, regardless of its efficiency.

Then why does it matter if we stay set in our ways? According to these researchers, depending on rote learning, and failing to think “outside the box” to seek out and use new approaches can, in some situations, mean using outdated, biased, and inefficient strategies that prevent us from making the best or even the most adequate decisions in many areas of our lives, such as health care and finances.


Watzek J, Pope SM, Brosnan SF. Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Scientific Reports. September 13, 2019; 9: article number 13195.

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