Longer May Not Be Better, but It Seems That Way

Thinking about trying to shake things up at work? Brimming with new ideas and strategies? Hoping to move your company boldly into the future? Good for you. But if you are going to innovate, it might help you to start by understanding what you are up against, psychologically speaking.

It's not just that people fear change, though they undoubtedly do. It's also that they genuinely believe (often on an unconscious level) that when you've been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things. And the longer you've been doing it that way, the better it is. So change isn't simply about embracing something unknown—it's about giving up something old (and therefore good) for something new (and therefore not good).

Recent research shows that people have a very reliable and tangible preference for things that have been around longer. In one study, students preferred the course requirement described as the status quo over a new version (regardless of whether the new version meant more or less coursework), and liked it even more when it had been around for 100 years rather than only 10 years. In another, people who were told that acupuncture had been in existence for 2000 years expressed more favorable attitudes toward it than those who were told it existed for only 250 years.

The bottom line is, unconsciously we all believe that longevity = goodness. There are, admittedly, plenty of instances where this is perfectly rational. When something has stood the test of time and beaten competitors, it is probably a superior product in at least some respects.

The problem is that longevity and tradition aren't always accurate predictors of goodness—inertia, habit, marketing prowess, market monopoly, and fear of change can all be the real reasons why we haven't tried something new. Also, there are areas of life that really should be unaffected by this sort of bias - in domains like art or cuisine, how long something has been around should have little to do with how aesthetically pleasing or delicious you find it.

And yet, it does. In one study, people who saw a painting described as having been painted in 1905 found it far more pleasing to look at than people who saw the same painting described as having been created in 2005. In another, they admired the appearance of a tree described as being 4500 years old more than people who thought the same tree just 500 years old.

In my favorite example, study participants were given a piece of European chocolate. It was described to them as having first been sold in its region either 73 years ago or 3 years ago. Guess which group rated the chocolate as better-tasting.

It's not impossible to overcome an unconscious bias, but if you want to succeed you need to start by realizing that it's there. Innovation requires that we not only convince others that new can be good, but also that we address their (often unconscious) assumption that what's been around longer looks, works, and tastes better.

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  • Christine Maingard

    Everett Rogers, in his "Diffusion of Innovations", first published in 1962 (and revised and updated many times since), has provided perhaps thus far the most comprehensive synthesis and conceptual framework on this topic. To this day this is still an excellent book to learn about how innovations are taken up and to understand the underpinning factors that determine how well they will be accepted (or rejected).

    The five-step process involved in embracing change is (1) knowledge, (2) persuasion, (3) decision, (4) implementation, (5) confirmation. This of course goes a long way to explaining why perceived 'longevity' means that something might be better (i.e. the knowledge that something has been around for a long time and therefore 'must' be good). The framework in "Diffusion of Innovations" is incredibly useful for anyone who is involved in implementing and managing change. Within organizational settings, people resist change because the first step – that of ‘knowledge’ – is not sufficiently addressed. "Why is something being done and how will it affect me?", is the most fundamental question.

    Resistance to change certainly comes from an expectation of loss and a fear of the unknown (fear of failure, etc) and some people are just plain negative towards anything that is different and/or new. Opponents to change often fear that the consequences of it will mean that they then have no control over whatever it is they believe they have control over – not realizing that such control never was real in the first place.

    One element that is mostly overlooked when people write about change is the accelerated speed of change. As Ronald Laing puts it “We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing”. The point here is that we are not designed for, and perhaps not meant to cope with, fast change. There is no doubt that the speed of change in all areas of our lives has begun to affect the human condition.

    So whilst it may well be that people fear change and believe that ‘longevity = goodness’, the underlying psychological factors relating to modern-day reality (i.e. the fast-paced world we live in) may be a major contributing factor to people’s attitude towards change.

    Christine Maingard, Author of "Think Less, Be More" - http://www.thinklessbemore.com