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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.

Follow me on Twitter: @hghalvorson