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Is Fear of Change Holding You Back?

Irrational loss aversion may stifle people’s potential.

Key points

  • Human decision-makers have an innate aversion to change and loss.
  • This aversion is fueled by the complex interplay of different decision biases including status quo bias and decision inertia.
  • Studies show that these biases can lead to poor decision-making and stifle people’s potential.
Meruyert Gonullu / Pexels
Source: Meruyert Gonullu / Pexels

How happy are you in your current employment?

Having served burgers and fries for many years now, waitress Penny feels frustrated with her job. She is tired of arguing with difficult customers. (What kind of person orders a barbecue bacon cheeseburger with the barbecue sauce, bacon, and cheese on the side?) She also really wouldn’t mind a higher salary. For months, she’s been thinking about quitting her regular job to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a Hollywood actress. In fact, she’s just been offered the lead role in a new sci-fi horror film with the promising title of Serial Ape-ist 2.

Even though the role is Penny’s biggest opportunity in years, she’s umming and erring about taking the leap and leaving her steady job at the restaurant. In the end, she lets the opportunity pass by. Penny continues to work the same shifts, at the same restaurant, serving the same customers, as she has done for as long as she can remember.

Aversion to Change

Reading about Penny’s choice may leave you shaking your head in exasperation. Why didn’t she quit the unloved job and follow her dreams instead?

Well, there are several factors that could have swayed Penny’s choice. It is possible that she was scared of the uncertainty associated with embarking on a new career. Perhaps she also anticipated later regret. After all, if her sci-fi role didn’t bring the desired success, she might have to pick up the pieces and rebuild her life.

In addition to these considerations, Penny may have experienced a common and somewhat irrational aversion to change. The human dislike of change is fuelled by an innate aversion to losses, which manifests itself in several closely related decision biases.

Status Quo Bias

This refers to the irrational tendency to prefer the current state of affairs to any alternative. Research suggests that it is caused by the complex interplay of many psychological aspects including a preference to stay in control and the relative comfort associated with a familiar situation. For example, when making her career choice, Penny may have worried about uprooting her easy life in favour of new and unknown challenges.

Endowment Effect

People have an irrational love for things they own. Studies show that human decision-makers consistently overvalue their personal possessions, even if they haven’t owned them for long. For example, one experiment involved gifting participants a mug. In a second step, participants could decide whether they wanted to keep the mug they newly owned or swap it for a luxury chocolate bar. In this decision situation, 89 percent of participants decided to keep the mug. This result was compared to two other groups of participants presented with slightly different decision scenarios. The participants in the second group were initially gifted the chocolate bar and subsequently offered the chance to swap it for a mug. In this situation, only 10 percent opted for the mug. The participants in the final experimental group were given the choice between receiving a mug and a chocolate bar in the beginning of the experiment. Interestingly, approximately half of the participants went with the mug, while the other half chose the chocolatey treat. These astonishing results suggest that the mere fact of owning something makes you like it more. Applying this insight to the context of Penny’s job conundrum, it is possible that Penny overvalued her position as a waitress simply because she had called the role her own for several years.

Omission Bias

This preconception describes a tendency of noninterference with the present situation because negative outcomes and hardship are more easily tolerated if they result from omission compared to action. Let me illustrate this again by referring back to Penny’s job dilemma. An important aspect when making employment choices is financial stability. If one is working as an experienced waitress, this stability could be threatened by managerial decisions to close the local restaurant branch and make all employees redundant. If one is working as an aspiring movie actress, financial stability could be threatened by the movie flopping and any subsequent career prospects being nipped in the bud. In Penny’s case, the first threat might be interpreted as caused by her omission to change careers when given the opportunity. It is likely to be much more easily tolerated than the second threat, which came about from her active choice to change careers.

Decision Inertia

A final bias relevant to change and loss aversion describes people’s tendency to stick with the “easy option” that affords the least amount of effort. Decision inertia is the reason for the power of defaults (i.e., pre-set options that come into place if no active choice is made). Perhaps Penny simply opted for the path of least resistance? Perhaps she simply felt she didn’t have the energy to overhaul her life and plan a new career?

Is Change Aversion Holding You Back?

Given the many different biases that interact to fuel a common aversion to change, it is hard to blame Penny (or anybody, really) for not taking a leap of faith. Making significant life changes and risking one’s current situation simply isn’t part of human nature. Unfortunately, though, people’s fear of change brings unexpected downsides. Powerful examples are provided by the field of health care, where omission bias may lead to a reluctance to get vaccinated, and status quo bias could be to blame for continuing to take unnecessary medication.

In addition, a strong aversion to change may stifle people’s potential. It’s hard to know in advance whether the lead role in a sci-fi horror film will be the path to lasting happiness. However, you’ll never find out if you don’t try. Sometimes, it might be worth taking a step back and scrutinising your own decision processes. Are irrational biases and an undue fear of change holding you back?

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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