Oil and Assumptions

Not long ago there was a crash involving a train full of crude oil.  It exploded and caused a great deal of damage.  In fact, this has happened multiple times in the last few months.  Of course reporters and pundits call for more and “better” regulation – as if somehow politicians and bureaucrats have stronger incentives to prevent this horrific scene than the owners of the trains, tracks, cargo, and homes near train tracks.

Many of the same people who lament the train explosions are completely opposed to new oil pipelines.  This is a particularly extreme case of status quo bias.  If you described the two methods of transporting oil to any sane person and asked which seems better it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring trains to pipelines.  Yet those who oppose pipelines are apparently more comfortable with millions of gallons of crude being loaded onto giant contraptions that take a mile to stop and run through the middle neighborhoods and cities and busy intersections on decades old rails.  It’s been done as long as they’ve been alive, so it gets a lot less scrutiny than anything new.

Status quo bias is a major obstacle to progress.  We fall prey to it in every area of our lives. (I’ve written about my struggles with it in parenting and educating my kids).  I like to play a game to help me combat status quo bias.  I pretend I’m a visitor from another planet and have no knowledge of earth’s past and present.  I analyze a situation in this frame of mind and think of how to describe what’s going on and the different options at play.  Imagine, for example, an alien observer in a typical college classroom.  They would assume by the looks on the faces in front of them and body language that it was a penal program of some kind.  This might queue us in to how odd it is to spend so much money to put ourselves and our children through classes we are completely disengaged from and don’t enjoy.

It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun to try a neutral examination of all around us.  When you’re opposed to something new, ask yourself honestly, “compared to what?”  Size it up to the status quo, not your imagined nirvana, and you might find change is welcome.

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