Ever wonder why some folks just seem to be blind to a problem or fail to see an issue for long periods of time, and when they finally do they resist the idea of changing? So did I!
There are really interesting things that happen in our brains that cause us to either not realize what is going on around us, or when we do actually realize it, result in us totally ignoring it or diminishing its relevance. I’m sure you’ve experienced this when you suddenly realize something blatantly obvious, and think, “why didn’t I see that all along?” Or worse, when you bring a new thing to light with coworkers that they resist. Well, you’re not alone in your experience.
Let’s look at a couple of interesting concepts that explain what might be going on:
- Habituation – the dictionary defines this as the “diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”. In other words, when you do the same things over and over, or are exposed to the same things repeatedly, your brain starts to get used to it, and you may not even see or hear what you used to in the same environment.
- Functional Fixedness – defined as a cognitive bias that causes people to use an object only in the way it has been traditionally used. In other words, because we are used to using something in one way, we often fail to see other ways of using the same object or tool.
- Status Quo Bias – as the name implies, this is a cognitive bias that explains the preference for the status quo, or the current state of affairs, over any change from the baseline. Changes from that baseline are perceived as a loss or a threat, and are uncomfortable because they interrupt inertia.
Because we avoid uncomfortable situations and don’t like to spend too much time doing hard thinking, our mind looks for shortcuts all the time, sometimes without our even consciously deciding to do so. Due to this, we also unconsciously seek routines as it lets our minds make cognitive processing easy and put those seemingly irrelevant pieces into the background and makes it part of the automatic system (System 1).
The problem with routines is that although we may gain efficiencies, we may also be shutting off some of those senses that allow us to see things differently and potentially creatively. From this can come habituation and functional fixedness.
So, what should we do about it?
There are a couple steps that can be taken to help reduce habituation and functional fixedness (Status Quo Bias is too big of an issue to address in this article):
- The first step in fixing cognitive biases is being aware of them. People will often try to correct their own biases, but first they have to know that they exist. Furthermore, in an organization where routines are the norm, it’s not good enough for one or two people to be educated in cognitive biases, the whole organization needs to have a basic understanding so that they collectively can be aware of how our brains process routines and the potential consequences of this.
- The other big part of mitigating habituation and functional fixedness is disrupting current processes or routines. Even minor changes to patterns can have positive outcomes. (I guess there’s something to that “disruption” everyone’s been talking about).
Disclaimer: Maybe disrupting processes isn’t something your organization needs. Maybe everything is working smoothly and interrupting the process would be counterproductive. This is okay. The point of this article is to point out that, in some cases, habituation and functional fixedness can be a problem, especially if you’re looking for creativity, ingenuity, analysis, or looking to find a way to increase efficiencies in current processes.
Josh Ramirez, PMP, MSM-PM, is a consultant at Evanclaer and is experienced in business operations management, project management, and project controls. He has worked at several national laboratories and other projects throughout the Department of Energy and is pursuing a Ph.D. in business psychology. He has a Masters’ degree in project management, is an adjunct professor of project management and conducts training courses that integrate the behavioral sciences with project management. Josh writes about culture and behavior, as well as Metrics and KPIs.