The Human Zoo reveals why disruption is good for us

25 July 2016

  • Disruption can be a good thing and lead to new ideas
  • Instinctive fear of change down to evolutionary psychology
  • Loss aversion sees people dislike losing something more than gains
  • Status quo bias means we like to stick with what we have

Most people hate it when their train, bus or flight is delayed. That seems obvious, but are there any positives to take from the disruption to one’s day-to-day life?

Professor of Behavioural Science, Nick Chater, revealed on BBC Radio Four’s The Human Zoo that a certain amount of disruption in our lives is a good thing.

“To start doing anything new or exciting, we typically have to be disrupted out of our previous habits,” said Professor Chaterwho teaches Principles of Cognition on the suite of MSc Business courses.

“But it is interesting that, when disruption occurs, we often focus on threats more than opportunities - Brexit is a case in point, for many people.

“Our initial reaction to change is always fear and anxiety, but quickly we see opportunities - human creativity through the millennia is a testament to how astonishingly good we are at turning disruption into triumphant success.”

Related article: The Human Zoo on why we all think we are experts

Lots of studies have shown the phenomenon known as ‘loss aversion’, where losses looms larger than gains. Stian Reimers, of City University London, argues our thinking on disruption comes down to evolutionary psychology, where our instinctive fear of change is because of adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in our ancestral environment.

Another example of our dislike of disruption is the ‘status quo bias’ – sticking with what we have, just because it is familiar.  

A nice case is the story of a German town moved due to finding coal underneath it. The town’s folk were allowed to choose how the new town would look, but ultimately they chose the same layout as before.

But how can disruption lead us into creative solutions?

Related course: Executive MBA 

Professor Chater, who also teaches Behavioural Science for Managers on the Executive MBA. said: “Think of it as finding our way up a hill by going up in small steps with a blindfold on, all we can do is choose the direction that seems to be leading upwards. But then we can get trapped on a small hill and never know that there is a huge mountain nearby.

“Disruption is like being randomly forced to jump in the wrong direction: we have to go in the ‘wrong’ direction to escape from the foothills and, with luck, find the mountain.”

To be creative often means putting yourself in a different space of ideas, but usually our starting point is what we already know, so disruption can force us to come up with new ideas.

One experiment challenges people to find the one slightly heavier ball out of nine otherwise identical balls, by using a pan balance.

Related article: The Human Zoo on why we play the blame game

Typically people embrace maximisation, weighing four against four, but interestingly enough 35 per cent weigh five versus four, even though five balls will obviously be heavier than four and so is completely uninformative as to which ball is different.  

And yet those who make the irrational move are more likely to find the insightful solution to the problem. Just being forced to realise one has done something daft - the disruption of this experience - actually makes people a better problem solver. 

To listen to the new series of The Human Zoo click here.

To find out more about behavioural science sign up for Warwick Business School free online course The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology.

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