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In Practice

Remove Bias Toward the Status Quo

The ability to change minds and persuade people of the need to do something is essential for business. Yet, when it comes to the mechanics of persuasion, a lot of people find it difficult to do. 

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a new book called The Catalyst, How To Change Anyone’s Mind, which describes the psychology behind the art of persuasion and some of the tools that can help to overcome people’s resistance to change. Today we share the third tool of persuasion. You can find the first part, second part, fourth part and fifth part here.

Berger explains people’s biases toward their own ideas versus other people’s ideas.

The third key insight is to ease endowment. A major challenge when trying to change people’s minds is that people are attached to things they’re already doing, ideas they already have, products they’re already using, services they’ve already engaged with. 

Think about ideas, for example. People love ideas they came up with, and they hate ideas other people came up with. Even if other people might have had the same ideas as them, if it’s their idea, they tend to like it more. 

We Are Attached to the Things We Have Already

Homeowners, for example: The longer they’ve lived in a home, the more they value it, even if it’s above market price. People are attached to stuff that they have. People buy the same products again and again and use the same services again and again. 

At the office, we tend to stick with projects we have already funded and initiatives we’re already engaging in, and we’re loathe to start new ones, all because we’re attached to the things we’re doing already. To get people to switch, to get people to change, to get them to do something new, we need to ease endowment.

One way to do this is to make people realize that the status quo isn’t costless. 

People often think that what they’re doing already is safe. It’s not risky. It’s easy to do. Because of that, they stick with it. But often the status quo isn’t as costless as it seems. 

Often, things may seem like they’re cheap or easy to do, but they’re not as easy as one might think. There’s a great study that was done on injuries, for example, where they ask people, “Hey, what do you think hurts more: a minor injury or a major one? Spraining your finger, or tweaking your ankle or knee. Or breaking your finger or breaking your knee?” Now, if you think about major injuries and minor injuries, it seems obvious. Of course, those major injuries are going to be more painful. Breaking your kneecap is much more painful than spraining your knee or something along those lines.

But it turns out, the opposite is true. It turns out that minor injuries often cause more pain. 

Berger explains why people tend to ignore “minor injuries” — and the cost of doing so.

Every time my cousin wrote an email, he would type out the words “regards, Charles” at the bottom. I said, “every time you write an email, it takes a few seconds to write “regards Charles.” Why don’t you just include that in your email signature?” 

He said, “I don’t know how to add an email signature. And it only takes a couple seconds. It’s not a big deal, right?” To him, writing that email signature was a minor injury, not a major one. It was below the threshold of needing to be fixed. So how could I get him to change? It was only a couple of seconds each time and for him figuring out how to do an email signature took a lot longer.

So instead, I took a different approach. I highlighted the cost of the action. I said, “Charles, how many emails then do you write every week?” And he said, “I don’t know, probably 300 or 400.” And I said, “So if it takes you three or four seconds each time to write your signature, how much time are you spending each week writing email signatures?” 

He thought about it for a minute, and then opened up the search bar and typed in how to automate an email signature. Highlighting the cost of an action makes people realize that something might seem like a minor injury, the status quo might seem safe or costless, but it’s not.

Everyone Has a Status-Quo Bias

And the reason why is that we fix major injuries. When there’s a big problem when we break our finger, we don’t just sit there. We go to the doctor, we have it set, we put on potentially a cast, same with other major injuries. But when we have a minor injury, when something’s not that bad, we don’t do the work to fix it. 

And the same is true with the status quo bias. If something’s terrible, people go ahead and they fix it. But if it’s just okay, if it’s not great, people don’t do the work to change it. If it’s just not great, they tend to stick around doing it. It’s a minor injury. And so they don’t do the hard work to change it.

By making people realize that something isn’t just a minor injury, it’s a major one, it’s not just OK, but it really is problematic. They’ll be much more likely to take the effort to make a change. 

Jonah Berger

Marketing Professor at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania @j1berger

Jonah Berger is marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the best-selling author of several books, including Contagious, Invisible Influence and his latest, The Catalyst.

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