Saturday, December 10, 2011

Status Quo Bias: The Devil Ye Ken versus the Devil ye don't

It is that time of year when everyone is assessing where they are in their life, what they've done, what they've not done, and what they want to do next year. I find the whole effort somewhat amusing, because ultimately though people will want to change matters, they somehow decide not to at the last moment.

At the heart of the matter is status quo bias. We prefer that which we know and have shaped ourselves around to that which we do not know. Certainty over uncertainty, minimizing pain through avoiding change even if it might be for the better.

However, what if that change is for the better? Would you regret not having gone through the effort to execute it?

For example, I refer you to one of my favorite passages in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (and no, it's not one of the romance novel moments, though Diana writes those amazingly well too...), since it calls out a two psychological biases (status quo and authority):

"Better the Devil ye ken, than the Devil ye don't," Murdo Lindsay said, shaking his head lugubriously. "Handsome Harry was nain sae bad."
"No, he wasna, then," agreed Kenny Lesley. "But ye'll ha' been here when he came, no? He was a deal better than that shite-face Bogle, aye?"
"Aye," said Murdo, looking blank. "What's your meaning, man?"
"So if Handsome was better than Bogle," Lesley explained patiently, "then Handsome was the Devil we didna ken, and Bogle the one that we did - but Handsome was better, in spite of that, so you're wrong, man." [Emphasis mine] 
"I am?" Murdo, hopelessly confused by this bit of reasoning, glowered at Lesley. "No, I'm not!"
"Ye are, then," Lesley said, losing patience. "Ye're always wrong, Murdo! Why d'ye argue, when ye're never in the right of it?"
"I'm no arguin'!" Murdo protested indignantly. "Ye're takin' exception to me, not t'other way aboot."
"Only because you're wrong, man!" Lesley said. "If ye were right, I'd have said not a word."
"I'm not wrong! At least I dinna think so," Murdo muttered, unable to recall precisely what he had said. He turned, appealing to the large figure seated in the corner. "Mac Dubh, was I wrong?" 
The tall man stretched himself, the chain of his irons chiming faintly as he moved, and laughed.
"No, Murdo, ye're no wrong. But we canna say if ye're right yet awhile. Not 'til we see what the new Devil's like, aye?" Seeing Lesley's brows draw down in preparation for further dispute, he raised his voice, speaking to the room at large. "Has anyone seen the new Governor yet? Johnson? MacTavish?"

In case you did not figure it out, Mac Dubh, or Jamie Fraser, is the authority among the prisoners in this book. We'll leave aside a discussion about the magnificence of a man like Jamie Fraser.

I sincerely hope that passage triggered some thoughts within you about the merits of sticking to your goals for the next year. I know that 2011 was predicated around various changes to my status quo. Some of those I executed more successfully than others:

  • Career - I decided it was time to apply for an MBA, so my applications are currently out there
  • Personal life - sorry, but this is private! You can ask me in person.
  • Investing: reading more than ever, and starting to journal my thoughts (albeit inconsistently)
So, for 2012, what will I be doing to change the status quo? Well, I certainly will not be protesting Wall Street or anything. And I view it as futile to protest the government, as if they'll listen and change things for the better (edit: Who knows, maybe they will, in some cases like SOPA, though I'm still a pessimist overall here thanks to the NDAA 2012, which continues the trend of the past 10 years).
  • Career - the MBA, or plan B
  • Personal life - again, this is private! I may post a passage from the The Dragon's Path in the future to illustrate the risks I see right now which I will be mitigating via actions for my personal situation (hint, part of it has something to do with what the Medean Bank did as a counter to the notion that power tends to corrupt, certainly among sovereigns and conquerers).
  • Investing:
    • Reading certain authors I respect on a regular basis (Jeremy Grantham and James Montier, though I think their Keynesian framework is wrong; John Hussman; and a few others)
    • Journaling on a weekly basis
  • Education: 
    • Learning a foreign language (something I've never managed to do so far)
    • CFA studies
My plate is certainly full for next year! With discipline, I'll accomplish it. Whatever your desires next year are to change your status quo (and for most of us, I believe we ought to), I wish you the best of luck and determination in executing your plans.

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