The Allure of Doing Nothing

Tim Riesterer

In a joint study on decision making, research psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann describe a wartime phenomenon called the “old sergeant syndrome” — when infantry on the frontlines, having witnessed the deaths of many comrades, are known to actually delay making decisions that might protect them from a similar fate. Though anecdotal, the old sergeant syndrome illustrates just how powerful the human preference for staying the course can be.

Sellers routinely encounter a similar preference in their customer conversations, and this preference is their most formidable adversary. Deeply rooted in human psychology and common in everyday life, this opponent has nothing to do with the other competitors in your market and everything to do with your prospects’ status quo bias — their preference for making no buying decision at all and sticking with their current situation. Humans have a serious predisposition for doing nothing and maintain this preference even when the current situation is clearly to their detriment.

In his study called “The Psychology of Doing Nothing,” research psychologist Christopher Anderson sums it up well: “Delays transform into lost opportunities, and adhering to the status quo is frequently unjustified given advantageous alternatives. Still, individuals persist in seeking default no-action, no-change options.”

Beating buyer inertia

Why is the status quo so compelling for so many buyers? Anderson’s research highlights several key “antecedents” that fuel our human penchant for inaction. These factors provide a helpful way to think about why buyer indecision happens, and what you as a seller can do to make sure it doesn’t.

•   Preference stability —Experienced buyers tend to stick with proven methods for making a selection. So, how can you engineer a shift in your prospects’ preferences? One of the best ways to do this in your customer conversations is to tell them something they didn’t already know about a problem or missed opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

     That means identifying and introducing their unconsidered needs — challenges, problems, gaps or deficiencies in their status quo approach that will make it difficult or even impossible to achieve their desired outcomes. This creates uncertainty in the buyer’s current preferences, which is required for decision processing and persuasion to take place.

•   Anticipated regret/blame – The possibility of regret can be a major source of inaction for buyers during the decision-making process. Anderson notes that anticipatory emotions during the decision process include a cocktail of negative states including dread, anxiety and fear largely due to the notion that humans tend to associate change with loss and pain instead of gain. To counteract this, you have to show prospects how the pain of staying the same — the status quo, which poses the biggest threat to their most vital business goals — is actually greater than the pain of change.

•   Cost of action/change – According to social psychologist Daniel Kahneman, humans are two to three times more motivated to avoid loss than to achieve gain. As a result, if change is risky and appears to cost more than staying the same, it will increase resistance. To make change more palatable to your prospects, you have to identify and quantify the cost of inaction and add that to the gain of change to show significant contrast between their current and future states. The value of doing something different resides in the contrast between where your prospects are today and where they could be with you.

•   Selection difficulty – Researchers confirm a concept called “choice overload,” which contributes to indecisiveness and the perception that change is too difficult and abstract to realize. To overcome this, you
need to make the complex simple and the abstract more concrete. The best way to do this is with visual storytelling tools depicting buyers’ current and future states so they can picture their status quo as unsafe and see your solution as a new, safe alternative path.

As Anderson’s research shows, the status quo bias is a stubborn foe.  Instead of worrying about a competitive matrix that shows how you stack up against a competitor, you should be spending more time on messages, tools and skills that defeat these causes of the status quo bias.