The Wrong Track

In Simpler: The Future of Government, Cass Sunstein sets the behavioral economics stage by framing the impacts of either staying the course or effortfully taking an action. Often, the choices we make can be thought of as either “do nothing” (and stay the course) or “do something” and decide to engage in a particular action. So the decision to eat a brownie might be a decision between saying the course (not eating because I’m ok with the status quo) and taking the action (chowing down).

Many of us are particularly inclined to do … well … nothing. This effect, the status quo bias, has been well-documented. Since it takes effort to change behavior, it is often our default state to just keep doing what we’re doing.

This may seem natural, but it can have very powerful implications on the distinction between decision making in the United States and decision making in the developing world. Sunstein points to Esther Duflo speaking on the Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog:

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, “Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?” And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care of for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything in your life […] Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of the decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

Awareness of the track we are on – the status quo – can be a powerful thing.

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