Frogs in a pot

March 27th, 2020

Do you know the annoying feeling you experience when you face a problem you could have seen coming, or worse, you could have prevented? We all spend a lot of money, time and energy solving problems. And yet, we are usually unwilling to invest in preventing identified risks. Not even if we are relatively sure that a risk will become reality or maybe even already became reality.  

Currently, our government spends a lot of money, time and energy on reducing the climate problem. Farmers have protested for months against the proposed measures. Construction projects have been discontinued and the maximum speed on highways has been reduced. The use of natural resources is part of the climate problem. For decades, natural gas has been extracted in the north of the Netherlands. The subsidence, resulting from the gas extraction, have caused hundreds of earthquakes in recent years. As a result of these earthquakes, the houses of thousands of people have been severely damaged. The residents’ discontent with the poor compensation and the lacking satisfaction in dealing with this damage, is a new problem that has arisen. Another problem that receives a lot of attention is the aging of our society. In spite of protests by the public, the retirement age has been revised upwards. The educational system is under a lot of pressure. There is a shortage of teachers, causing young people to miss out on education. Teachers regularly strike to express their dissatisfaction about their salary and working conditions. And since a few weeks we are in the grip of the COVID-19 virus. To control the spread of the virus, we all have to stay at home, keep at least 1,5 meter distance apart from other people and wash our hands more often. 

This is just a small selection of the problems we have at hand. These problems have in common that we could have seen them coming. At least we have been warned of the risks of these problems. Researchers have warned governments about climate change for decades. The composition of our population, the pressure on our health system and the pressure on the pension system was hardly a surprise. Various governmental and non-governmental bodies present figures and reports filled with warnings about these topics on an annual basis. Although it has been known for years that there is a shortage of teachers, and despite many warnings, over the last couple of years several cutbacks in education have taken place. The problems we now experience due to the COVID-19 virus didn’t come without warning. I don’t mean we already had seen how much damage this virus had caused in China before it reached Europe. Scientists have been trying to warn and educate governments for decades to prepare for virus outbreaks like this.

People are creatures of habit. This makes sense because if we repeat something often enough it becomes an automatism. And as soon as something has become an automatism, we save brain capacity. This allows us to act without consciously thinking about it and gives us the possibility to respond adequately to our environment while saving sufficient capacity to spend on other things. Habits or patterns are created by repeating behavior in the same situation or context. At first our behavior is guided by our internal values such as our beliefs, attitudes and intentions that are being triggered by the context. Gradually, conscience thinking fades and automatic patterns take over. While these patterns are of great benefit, they are, at the same time, just as big of a problem as the problems mentioned before. The status quo, or having an adequate way of doing things, is a problem because it gives us an excuse to stop thinking. After all, we already have a way of doing something or a way to look at something. Unfortunately, the known way is not always the best way. And maybe this way used to be a good way in the past, but with unnoticed changes in the context it might actually be a really bad way of doing something. Remember that due to our automatisms we pay less attention to our environment, or we stop paying attention to our environment at all. It is just like the old myth about the frog in boiling water. Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and it will jump out. Take the same frog and put it in a pot with water at room temperature that you slowly bring to the boil and it will boil to death. 

Only if we realize the value of looking for an alternative way or if we are motivated to look for another way, we will invest in doing this. Warnings for risks are often not sufficiently motivating. Political parties are mainly motivated by the number of votes they will get during the next elections. Solving pressing problems is rewarded. Finding a better way of doing something will take an implementation process of many years within the current bureaucratic structures. This could result in other political parties reaping the benefits of the high investments done by the current administration. Not exactly an incentive. The same mechanism works in business. You can be punished for not solving a problem but you won’t be punished for not finding a better way of doing something. Even on a personal level we are often only willing to change our behavior if we have encountered a problem that showed our vulnerability for a risk. 

It is not all bad news. Today’s complex society is characterized by constant change under influence of (disruptive) technological developments. This, combined with the major pressing problems we’ve allowed to arise, forces us to act and revise the status quo. In other words, the temperature of our ambient water no longer changes gradually, but has gone from room temperature to very hot in large steps. For a long time we have been lazily floating around in our pot, but now we suddenly wake up by the temperature of the water. Is this enough incentive to critically think if there is a better way than the status quo?

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