Reference Points

Reference Points


There’s a well-documented cognitive bias in the field of psychology known as the status quo bias, which is basically the tendency for people to prefer things as they currently are to any alternative.  This obviously doesn’t happen all the time, as we’re still often driven to try and improve our lives, in one aspect or another.  


But I think this does illustrate the inclination for people to assume things from a “standard” point of view.  That means they’ll judge something by how far it departs from the average.  For example, knowing that a child going blind due to a birth defect may feel more devastating than learning that a senior has lost sight in both eyes due to glaucoma.

In the former case, blindness isn’t “supposed” to happen to young children, so we may judge it to be worse than the latter case of a senior going blind due to health complications which is bad, but not altogether unexpected; it’s more “normal” for a senior to go blind than a child.


I believe using an “average reference point” can lead us to overlook some areas that could be potentially improved in our lives.


Consider Alzheimer’s disease, the crippling neurodegenerative illness that slowly erodes memory, destroys brain function, and eventually leads to death.  This is what many people would believe to be a terribly way to die. Consequently, there are many organizations and researchers working to cure this disease.


As a thought experiment, imagine a world where Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a potential disease, but the norm– maybe everyone has a gene that causes it, as it doesn’t manifest until later in life.  If everyone faced decreasing brain function and loss of memory as they headed into their later years, would we still be so driven to stop it?  Or does making it the normal case reduce our motivation because “it’s natural”?


This example brings up a few points.  One is the status quo bias, and the other is the use of an objective reference point.


Firstly, the idea of not tampering with the natural order is paralleled in other areas of our lives.  There is often reluctance at “going against nature” because this “isn’t how things were meant to be”.  In our hypothetical world, however, would it be morally correct to continue to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, even if it affected everyone and was “natural?”  


From our perspective, we would most likely say “yes”.  Whether or not everyone gets Alzheimer’s, in our own world we can already see that it is a source of suffering and pain.  In our own world, we are trying to cure it because of this suffering; it should be the same in our hypothetical world– perhaps we should try even harder because more people are suffering from the disease.  


Yet even in our own world where an analogous situation exists, there is still the oft-repeated rejoinder that we shouldn’t try and change the status quo because it’s “not natural”.


It may indeed be wise to pause before radically changing our environment, but this should be because affecting large causally interconnected systems (like our biosphere) can lead to potentially unwanted, unpredictable effects, not because we have some moral obligation to maintain the status quo– especially if lives and happiness are at stake.


But from the perspective of someone living in our hypothetical world, it’s much harder to even generate the possibility of curing someone of Alzheimer’s.  In the hypothetical world, it’s not an anomaly that has to be fixed, but it’s a feature of the environment that just is.


Thus, to come up with innovative ideas, like curing Alzheimer’s in a world where everyone gets it, we probably need some way of questioning our assumptions and moving past the average reference point.  


One possible fix is to also develop an objective reference point.  


Instead of comparing things you’ve done to what others have done (or what people on average do), it may be constructive to compare what you’re doing to other things you could be doing to get to your goal– an objective reference point based off you and your potential actions.  I think the key here is to engage the part of your brain that generates actions/solutions, and get it to go all out, coming up with lots of additional things you can do to get to your goal.  


This way, you’re comparing yourself to “better” versions of yourself, which means you are considering things you can do– not what other people have done.  Objective reference points allow you to stay within the bounds of reality, but also get your mind thinking past norms and anomalies, to hypotheticals and counterfactuals, which hopefully leads to a freer generation process that can produce ideas like curing Alzheimer’s in a world where everyone gets it– ideas that move past existing paradigms.  


Aside from helping with your action/solution generation, keeping an objective reference point can help when other people try to shift the reference point.  Shifting the reference point is where you change the “average” you’d typically compare yourself to in order to make your own actions seem larger or smaller– without actually changing your actions, so it’s all just by comparison.


For example, consider that I am trying to get my roommate to reduce his 30 minute showers to save water.  The dialogue might be a little like:


“Hey Bob, water’s tight right now.  Do you think you could try limiting your showers to under ten-ish minutes?”

“Alice, don’t be ridiculous.  Why do I have to do anything?  People are wasting hundreds of gallons a day on their lawns!  Go tell them to reduce!”


While Bob does bring up a good point (that we should target profligate water users to maximize water reduction), his comparison of such water wasters to his own habits has not actually changed the situation.  It sort-of dodges the question and shifts responsibility onto the other parties.

So it’s not so much of a problem that Bob brings up the other water wasters (especially if he’s actually interested in reducing water usage) , but if he’s using them only as an excuse to justify his own (comparatively not-so-bad) habits, then it may still be questionable.


Of course, the reason we tend to use average reference points is that, for the most part, they tend to work pretty well in life.  Most things are relative, and having a comparative understanding is usually enough.  It’s important to be wary of those who use reference point trickery, though, in some situations.  And in tackling some harder problems, or trying to see beyond what exists, having an objective reference point can be a handy tool to have.



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