Overcoming the Tyranny of Entrenched Patterns

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the inability for some aspects of human society to change – whether it has to do with culture, societal norms, the economy, etc.  We always think of the human species as adaptable – and we are, to an extent – but really, we adapt only when we have no other choice.

Personally, I have had no shortage of instances where have remained stubbornly un-adaptable.  For example, for years I have consistently told myself that I should exercise more.  Exercise begets both good health and a happier mood in the long-term – benefits that clearly outweigh the short-term “benefits” of slothness.  Yet, every day, year after year, I never set aside the time – at least, not on a regular basis – to establish a consistent exercise routine.  This pattern of procrastination and non-adaptation is even evident on this very blog (you’ll notice that, thus far, I generally post only once every couple of weeks, a pattern I am desperately trying to break).

Why is it so difficult for us humans to adapt?  Habits make us practice the status quo.  Consistent practice, in turn, makes it far easier for humans to resort to the status quo rather than trying something new.  Additionally, the environments we choose to live in tend to reinforce the status quo, making it difficult to change behaviors easily.  For example: the environment I live in naturally contains several people who are almost exactly like me, especially when it comes to a lack of consistent exercise.  Even if I wanted to exercise, the people in my life a) give me no competitive urge to exercise b) oftentimes will not go with me to exercise, as their lifestyles are also structured in a way that emphasizes other activities c) the status quo environment provide makes it difficult for them to have the will to exercise/actually exercise, reinforcing my lack of will to exercise/actually exercise.  It is a vicious cycle.  Not that any of this is an excuse for my laziness; I alone am responsible for that.  But the environment I live in certainly does not help.

This lack of adaptability can easily be identified in several economic and overarching social patterns.  For example, think about a scenario of economic recession.  Aggregate demand is declining, and to maintain profits businesses must reduce output and cut costs.  This cost cutting can take many forms, but the focus is usually on two aspects of labor: wages or employment.  In other words, an employer can either lower wages or shrink payrolls to cut costs and remain profitable.  Although both occur, the emphasis tends to be to shrink payrolls.  Why?  One explanation is, culturally, it has always been this way, making a change in behavior more foreign and difficult.  Another is that everyone expects businesses to act this way; their is an expectation that wages remain stable (or, better yet, increase) for the vast majority of employees.  As a result, during recessions, we tend to see shrinking payrolls as opposed to wage cuts (side note: could this actually be increasing income inequality? if wage cuts were pursued, employees would be poorer but everyone would at least have income; however, with payroll cuts, some former employees suddenly receive an income of $0 while the remaining employees continue to receive income; the latter scenario creates a wider income gap, at least within a business).  The question is, to what extent are businesses caving into societal pressure and pre-existing patterns of operation as opposed to sound business/economic practice?

Entrenched patterns also bedevil the consumer.  Think about how people go grocery shopping.  They tend to always go to the same place/places, right?  Over time, this doesn’t really change, even if it would eventually make slightly better economic sense to start buying groceries at Walmart as opposed to a local mom-and-pop store.  Even if we begin our grocery-shopping lives initially by looking at price differentials, we tend to choose places to shop for groceries based on the locations we know and the patterns of grocery shopping of people we know.  As time goes on, shopping at that particular location becomes an entrenched routine in our lives.  Even if it the cost differences between two locations become substantial, we often will still choose the more expensive location just because it is what we are used to; it’s what we know.  Our shopping decisions will change eventually when the cost becomes large enough, but not in time for our change to be reasonably considered “adaptable”.  Something that normally would be a generally competitive market – similar goods offered, few barriers to entry, etc. – has less competitiveness than meets the eye.

Patterns aren’t necessarily a bad thing – they can be good if they promote something that truly is superior.  However, patterns have a tendency to become too entrenched, entrenched in a way that is often a detriment to ourselves and society.  We humans must have the will to adapt when necessary – even when the short-term pain of doing so is severe.  Otherwise, the comfortable little world we create will doom us to long-run failure.

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