Why Trying New Things Is So Hard to Do

When the same choice is made over and over again, the downside of trying something different is limited and fixed — that one soda is unappealing — while the potential gains are disproportionately large. One study estimated that 47 percent of human behaviors are of this habitual variety.

Yet many people persist in buying branded products even when equivalent generics are available. These choices are noteworthy for drugs, when generics and branded options are chemically equivalent. Why continue to buy a name-brand aspirin when the same chemical compound sits nearby at a cheaper price? Scientists have already verified that the two forms of aspirin are identical. A little personal experimentation would presumably reassure you that the generic has the same effect.

Our common failure to experiment extends well past generics, as one recent study illustrates. On Feb. 5, 2014, London Underground workers went on a 48-hour strike, forcing the closings of several tube stops. The affected commuters had to find alternate routes.

When the strike ended, most people reverted to their old patterns. But roughly one in 20 stuck with the new route, shaving 6.7 minutes from what had been an average 32-minute commute.

The closings imposed by the strike forced experimentation with alternate routes, yielding valuable results. And if the strike had been longer, even more improvements would probably have been discovered.

Yet the fact that many people needed a strike to force them to experiment reveals the deep roots of a common reluctance to experiment. For example, when I think of my favorite restaurants, the ones I have visited many times, it is striking how few of the menu items I have tried. And when I think of all the lunch places near my workplace, I realize that I keep going to the same places again and again.

Habits are powerful. We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant. Yes, I want to know what else my favorite restaurant does well, but today I just want my favorite dish.

Overconfidence also holds us back. I am unduly certain in my guesses of what the alternatives will be like, even though I haven’t tried them.

Finally, many so-called choices…

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