Culture / Status Quo Bias Mental Model (Incl Default Options, Opt-In vs. Opt-Out)

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Culture / Status Quo Bias Mental Model: Executive Summary

If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the culture / status quo bias mental model.

One quote on culture / status quo bias:

What we assume to be obvious is simply the way things have always been done, but now that it is questioned, we don’t actually know the reasons. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

(From the amazing The Design of Everyday Things – DOET review + notes.)

Culture / status quo bias in one sentence: considering that we generally improve our knowledge over time both individually and collectively, it is generally adaptive for us to go with what we know, or with the “default option” – however, this can also lead to bad ideas getting “stuck” in our minds and behaviors, especially when circumstances change, making once-adaptive behaviors maladaptive.

Key takeaways/applications: simply becoming aware of why we do things – i.e., applying disaggregation to our behavior – can help us determine whether or not our actions are optimal.

By inversion, our tendency to stick with the default option can be a powerful force to take advantage of via structural problem solving (hopefully for good) – making the default option a good one can dramatically and costlessly improve our and others’ lives, without sacrificing individual choice.

Two brief examples of culture / status quo bias:

Language and culture.  Words in our language – and the related concepts – can get “stuck” in our culture well past their expiration date, with consequences ranging from amusing to more serious.  In high school debate, evidence quotes were called “cards” because (long ago) people used to write them down on index cards from the library… now they’re just copied and pasted from the internet, but they’re still called “cards.”

Similarly, phrases like “a tough row to hoe” persist despite nobody actually hoeing rows anymore.  Many people (myself included) use the phrase “poster child” without knowing where it came from: the March of Dimes, overviewed beautifully in David Oshinsky’s “ Polio: An American Story ( PaaS review + notes).

FDR and his National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis spurred ordinary citizens to donate to the fight against polio with salient posters of children recovering from polio – hence, poster child.  (Donald Anderson, the first poster child, is pictured at right.)

But there’s a darker side to this story: concepts that have been proven conclusively wrong can still linger in our collective consciousness.  Tavris / Aronson discuss in “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) – MwM review + notes – how the idea of “repressed memories” was more or less fraudulent; in fact, memory experts like Daniel Schacter (“ The Seven Sins of Memory” – 7SOM review + notes) observe that traumatic memories are usually intrusive and hard to avoid, as in soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Nonetheless, many of us – myself included – joke about the idea of “repressing” traumatic memories, which as Tavris / Aronson explore, isn’t a good thing.

Progress in science and business.  Henry Petroski observes, in To Engineer Is Human (TEiH review + notes), that:

“Technologists, like scientists, tend to hold on to their theories until incontrovertible evidence, usually in the form of failures, convinces them to accept new paradigms.”

As Geoffrey West discusses in “ Scale ( SCALE review + notes) as well, tried-and-true methods often keep working until you change the circumstances: Petroski observes how plenty of iron bridges collapsed due to poor design, despite the material being stronger than wood, in “ To Engineer is Human.”

Thomas Kuhn makes similar points in his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ( Kuhn review + notes).  Indeed, the history of science and medicine, as we’ll explore, has been marked by many instances of slowed progress due to bad ideas getting “stuck” in people’s brains.

The same holds true for businesspeople: many great businesses have fallen by the wayside due to complacency and sticking with the way things have always been done; in contrast, disruptors over the years – from the Hartford brothers at The Great A&P in the late 1800s through Sam Walton in the mid-1900s, Howard Schultz of Starbucks in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and Jeff Bezos in the past couple decades, have all been willing to tear things up and try something new.

If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.

However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries!  There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeys, our discussion of the activation energyinversion, or multicausality mental models, or our reviews of great books like “The Great A&P” (GAP review + notes), “Deadly Choices” (VAX review + notes), or “Uncontainable” (UCT review + notes).

Culture / Status Quo Bias: A Deeper Look At How And Why It Exists, Plus Its Power

If you’re like nearly everybody else in this world, you’ve accepted so many things without question that you’re not really thinking at all. - Jonah, in Eli Goldratt’s The Goal Click To Tweet

from “The Goal” – Goal review + notes

The idea of culture / status quo bias bears a little more investigation before we head into the interactions with other mental models in the latticework.  

I’ll explore the phenomenon, then present three interactions: one exploring how to counteract this tendency and ensure progress, one exploring how to utilize this tendency to our advantage, and one exploring a specific bad idea passed down through generations that’s endangering our health and productivity.

The sections are relatively independent; read whichever ones interest you and skip the rest!

To fully appreciate the depth and breadth of the power of culture and status quo bias, it’s important to ask why it exists.  On some level, we all intuitively understand this concept, but as with incentives, it’s one that we consistently underestimate.

The easy answer as to why culture / status quo bias exists is two of the phenomena underlying a lot of the mental models.  First, cognition is energetically expensive: I explore this more in the habit /conditioning mental model, but briefly, neurons use 10x as much energy as other similarly-sized cells, and our brains account for 20% of our energy consumption despite accounting for ~2% of our mass.  Therefore, anything that saves energy – like sticking with “tried and true” methods – is

Second, culture / status quo bias is

generally adaptive.  As Laurence Gonzales observes in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes), we don’t have fur to keep us warm or fangs to hunt with.  We win with the power of our minds that creates technology and best practices passed down through generations.  Each generation doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, or the flame, or clothing: knowing the vast majority of what we need to know about them already, we just tinker around the edges to make them slightly better.

Similarly, in The Landscape of History (LandH review + notes), historian John Lewis Gaddis notes that the effectiveness of human thinking:

“has been multiplied many times by learning and incorporating… the experience of the intervening generations.”  

Most of the time this works quietly and in the background – the general success of going with what works is often not noticed.  Indeed, it’s like our memories: as Daniel Schacter points out in The Seven Sins of Memory (7SOM review + notes), and as I discuss in more depth in the memory mental model, forgetting is almost always adaptive: but we don’t notice when we forget useless stuff, only on the occasions when we forget useful stuff.

While culture is generally thought of as uniquely human, there’s actually evidence that culture and status quo bias exists in birds as well.  Jennifer Ackman’s delightful “ The Genius of Birds ( Bird review + notes) – a beautiful book that makes as wonderful a present for a friend or outdoorsy nephew as it does a mental-models-building Saturday – provides examples of this ranging from fascinating to funny.  

Birds, like humans, have dialects of song and strongly prefer their native dialects, often not even recognizing those from other areas.  New Caledonian crows seem to pass along learned (not genetic) best practices for creating tools. Birds in certain parts of England learned how to open milk cartons and skim the cream off the top, a behavior that spread like wildfire thanks to social proof.

Most humorously, escaped cockatoos have been reported to teach naughty words to their wild cousins, such that if you wander around the Australian Outback for long enough, you might catch a cheeky bird swearing at you.

Why do birds engage in this sort of behavior?  For much the same reason as humans, Ackerman hypothesizes:

“This kind of social learning – copying fellow birds in a local environment – say the researchers, might be a quick and cheap way of acquiring successful new behaviors without undertaking potentially risky trial-and-error learning.”

Of course, the flip side is that on occasion, this can be maladaptive.  Beloved physicist Richard Feynman notes, in “ The Pleasure of Finding Things Out ( PFTO review + notes), that our remarkable ability to pass on ideas via culture has a:

“disease in it.  It was possible to pass on mistaken ideas.  

It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race.  

The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.”  

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler explore this phenomenon in quite some depth in “ Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) – a phenomenal book we’ll touch on in more depth in one of the interactions below.  It was “ Nudge that made me realize that status quo bias and culture are pretty much the same thing.

On pages 58 – 59 of “ Nudge,” Sunstein/Thaler observe how in one research study, completely arbitrary initial decisions could persist for a surprisingly long time:

“Initial judgments were also found to have effects across “generations.”  Even when enough fresh subjects were introduced and others retired so that all participants were new to the situation, the original group judgment tended to stick…

[… other experiments have shown that] an arbitrary “tradition” […] can become entrenched over time, so that many people follow it notwithstanding its original arbitrariness.

[…] An important problem here is [… that] we may follow a practice or tradition not because we like it, or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it.  

Many social practices persist for this reason, and a small shock, or nudge, can dislodge them.”

Interesting, huh?

I hear some of you saying: it’s just one study, and it’s oldddddddddd as the hills.  But this phenomenon turns up in a lot of places if you look for it.  As Howard Schultz put it in the Starbucks origin story, “ Pour Your Heart Into It ( PYH review + notes),

“as a parent, or as an entrepreneur, you begin imprinting your beliefs from Day One, whether you realize it or not […]

it is difficult, if not impossible, to reinvent a company’s culture… by then, the water’s already in the well, and you have to drink it.”  

There are examples outside of business, too. 

In Jonathan Waldman’s “ Rust ( Rust review + notes) – one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve ever encountered – Waldman explores how enmeshed  status quo bias (in addition to  incentiveslocal vs. global optimization, etc) made it hard for Dan Dunmire to fight literal corrosion – rust, that is – eating away at the DoD’s expensive assets like missiles and aircraft carriers:

“Actually, it’s dealing with human beings that require even more patience than dealing with aircraft and ships and bases.  Physics, [Dunmire] calls black and white.

People he calls “quasi scientific at best.” They have more momentum than a carrier and require as much space for making turns.”  

A successful culture change was implemented, but it took a lot of time and a lot of effort: the “path of least resistance,” i.e. sticking with the status quo, was followed for quite a while despite Dunmire’s efforts.

Similarly, Christopher Browning’s chilling “ Ordinary Men ( OrdM review + notes) – a fascinating exploration of the psychological mechanisms that led a group of working-class, non-ideological men to execute horrific orders during the Holocaust – makes, in passing, the observation that group dynamics persisted even once many of the original men were gone.

So all the psychological effects ( habitcontrast bias, and a number of others I discuss in the notes to that book) were passed on via culture. Browning:

“Because of a the high rate of turnover and reassignment, only a portion of the policemen who had taken part in the first massacre at Jozefow were still with the battalion in November 1943, when its participation in the Final Solution culminated in […] the single largest German killing operation against Jews in the entire war[,] with a victim total of 42,000 Jews.”

Think about that.  A lot of psychological research tries to deconstruct the factors that make us tick, but a lot of what makes us tick turns out to be stuff we weren’t even around for the creation of.

Culture / Status Quo Bias DisaggregationAsking the Right Questions

“Jeff [Bezos] does a couple of things better than anyone I’ve ever worked for.  He embraces the truth. A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making around the best truth at the time.  

The second thing is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. 

Everything else, he views as open to discussion.”

– Rick Dalzell, Jeff Bezos’s long-time right-hand-man at Amazon

That quote, from Brad Stone’s phenomenal “ The Everything Store ( TES review + notes), highlights one of the many attributes that have helped Bezos to disrupt multiple industries: in this case, his aversion to status quo bias Scientific thinking and an avoidance of sunk costs are a few of the others, if you were wondering.)

Stone explores how Bezos was analytical about everything, disaggregating problems into their underlying components and thoughtfully exploring how they could be solved better.

In The Happiness Advantage ( THA Review + notes), psychologist Shawn Achor notes loss aversion  – our tendency to focus on the bad more than the good – and recommends techniques such as gratitude to retrain our brains to take a more balanced perspective.  A similar phenomenon seems to apply to status quo bias: given that we often don’t question the way things are done, it’s important to stop and do that once in a while, just to shake things up.

Howard Schultz, in the aforementioned “ Pour Your Heart Into It ( PYH review + notes), makes a few good observations about this.  He notes, also touching on local vs. global optimization:

“we [humans] are seldom motivated to seek self-renewal when we’re successful… when the fans are cheering, why change a winning formula?  … because the world is changing…

even when life seems perfect, you have to take risks and jump to the next level, or you’ll start spiraling downhill into complacency without even realizing it.”  

This complacency pops up all over the place.  After recounting a story about how GM didn’t even bother testing his thoughtful advice, Richard Thaler observes in “ Misbehaving ( M review + notes) – my favorite book – that:

I have learned over the years... the reluctance to experiment, test, evaluate and learn... is all too common. I have continued to see this tendency, in business and government. - Richard Thaler Click To Tweet

One way to counteract it is simply to shake things up sometimes for the sake of shaking things up – an easy, costless a/b test; you can always to back to the old way if things don’t work out.  

Sam Walton did this at Wal-Mart for many decades; he discusses in “ Made in America ( WMT review + notes) how he “made it his personal mission” to ensure constant change was part of the Wal-Mart culture – sometimes, even just for change’s sake.  In fact:

As good as business was, I could never leave well enough alone, and, in fact, I think my constant fiddling and messing with the status quo may have been one of my biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart. - Sam Walton Click To Tweet

A failure to continue this behavior in the post-Walton era might have been one of the factors that led Wal-Mart to cede the e-commerce landscape to Amazon.

Examples of this phenomenon also pop up in science and medicine.  In Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes), an under-the-radar but wonderfully thought-provoking book, Groopman cites the example of how for the better part of a century, common medical practice was to insert a certain needle to drain fluid from around the heart in a specific spot.

How was that spot picked?  Not because that was the most effective place to stick the needle to get to the fluid, but rather because that spot was easiest to penetrate with the needles of that era.  (Reminds me of the anecdote of the guy looking for his keys under the lamppost because “that’s where the light is,” notwithstanding that he dropped his keys in the bushes!)

This was passed down from doctor to doctor because that was the way it has always been done… and nobody ever bothered to question it or put any empirics behind it.  

After a century of this practice (and undoubtedly some patient deaths along the way), cardiologist Dr. James Lock eventually thought to ask hey, why do we stick the needle in there? 

Realizing there was no actual evidence to support the practice, he went and found some.  His trainees (and hopefully the whole field) now instead stick the needle where the fluid actually is, as determined by ultrasound.

Similar stories can be found in the development of the polio vaccine, and the human cell lines now used to produce modern vaccines.  This section is getting long, so I won’t spoil the stories, but check out David Oshinsky’s “ Polio: An American Story” ( PaaS review + notes) and Meredith Wadman’s “ The Vaccine Race” ( TVR review + notes) for more on these.

Of course, you have to be careful about getting too cute.  Sometimes things are the way they are for good reason.  As billionaire serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel says in “ Zero to One ( Z21 review + notes),

The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself. - Peter Thiel Click To Tweet

Application / impact: since we, both individually as as organizations/societies, have a tendency to stick to what works, we can counteract that tendency by sometimes shaking things up and simply stopping every so often to ask: hey, why are we doing this?

Culture / Status Quo Bias Structural Problem Solving x InversionDefault Options, Opt-In vs. Opt-Out

Passivity is one of humans’ greatest skills. People are good at doing nothing. - Richard Thaler Click To Tweet


That quote, from Thaler’s presentation upon accepting his Nobel prize, highlights one of the underlying drivers of his phenomenal book “ Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) with coauthor Cass Sunstein.

The first 100 pages of Nudge are some of the most mental-models rich learning you’ll find anywhere – with a side of humor – so I’ll keep the discussion here brief and you can go read Nudge for a fuller version of the story.

(See also the structural problem solving mental model for a fuller version of Thaler’s quote.)

As with most mental models, culture / status quo bias works as well in reverse as it does going forward.  Our tendency to stick with the default option can be utilized for good; Sunstein and Thaler explore how sensible default options can massively improve the rates of organ donation – flipping it from a rarity with opt-in to a near-certainty with opt-out – make us eat healthier, and help us save for retirement.  

(Thaler’s “Save More Tomorrow” plan, which made beautiful use of status quo bias, is discussed in more detail in the structural problem solving model.)

A lot of businesses utilize default options to their advantage.  The powerful tendency of consumers to stick with defaults underlies the use of “opt-in” checkboxes in downloaded software (see below for an example from Adobe’s website for their popular Adobe Reader for opening PDF files.)  Similarly, auto-renewal or auto-pay features meaningfully improve customer retention in businesses as disparate as home security and business services.

Adobe has not one, but THREE opt-in checkboxes when you try to download Adobe Acrobat Reader. Clearly, someone there understands status quo bias.
Adobe has not one, but THREE opt-in checkboxes when you try to download Adobe Acrobat Reader. Clearly, someone there understands status quo bias.

Given the persistence of cultural norms over time, setting the right defaults early is important.  Walton made sure that constant change was part of the Wal-Mart culture. Both Charles Duhigg (in “ The Power of Habit – PoH review + notes) and Laurence Gonzales (in “ Deep Survival” – DpSv review + notes) touch on the long-term impact of culture and habits formed in the military.  

Richard Rhodes’ “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb ( TMAB review + notes) touches on just how powerful a force this can be.  Surrender was simply not an acceptable part of Japanese culture; as a result:

“The proportion of captured to dead Japanese[…] was 1:120 when a truism among Western nations is that the loss of one-fourth to one-third of an army – 4:1 – usually bodes surrender.”  

There’s lots of qualitative color and anecdotes about the Japanese refusal to surrender, but it shows up in a major way later in Rhodes’ book when (incredibly) the Japanese almost don’t surrender even after Truman dropped the bomb…

Culture played other important roles in WWII, as well: many of the Manhattan Project scientists were Jewish refugees who’d fled Europe; Nazi anti-Semitism in large part deprived Germany of much of its brain trust.  Meanwhile, American engineering culture proved to be just as valuable in building the bomb as the nuclear science.

Application / impact: our powerful tendency to stick with the default can be utilized: setting up appropriate default options, and getting culture right early, can create an incredibly sticky force for good that provides a recurring payoff over time.

Culture / Status Quo Bias x Sleep / Rest: Contra-Death, Chronotypes, and a Cascade of Cognitive Errors

Let’s go deep on one topic for our final example.  Even people trained in scientific thinking can be misled, by culture / status quo bias, to reach errant conclusions.  One of the most salient examples of this is the widespread ignorance about sleep – we’ll start with doctors (who should know better), then move on to the general population.

The medical profession is notorious for brutally long shifts, both during residency and other parts of doctors’ careers.  Dr. Jerome Groopman highlights some of the consequences in the aforementioned “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes):

“McEvoy’s story of relentless work and sleep deprivation reminded me of the worst moments of my own internship and residency […]

subconsciously, I found myself minimizing the severity of a symptom or assuming that an aberrant laboratory result was an artifact rather than a sign of a serious problem.”

Of course, sleep is critical to proper decision-making, as sleep researcher Dr. Matthew Walker’s phenomenal “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) provides a clinic on. Sleep turns out to be fundamental to all aspects of health and decision-making.

In fact, Walker calls sleep “Mother Nature’s best attempt at contra-death,” with impacts ranging from cancer to immune function to cardiovascular health, and notes that sleep couples the prefrontal cortex (the rational part of our brain) to the amygdala (the emotional part).  Research shows that sleep-deprived subjects:

Dr. Matthew Walker, explaining the importance of sleep during his Talk at Google.
Walker, during his Talk at Google.

“showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity […] without sleep […] the strong coupling between [the prefrontal cortex and amygdala] is lost.  

We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological – and hence emotional – even keel.”

Why We Sleep is my candidate for most important book of the century, and I purchased copies for all my clients.  On a broader scale, here are the statistics, per Walker, on the results of the sort of sleep-induced cognitive errors Groopman references:

“Residents working a thirty-hour-straight shift will commit 36 percent more serious medical errors [… and make…] 460 percent more diagnostic mistakes in the intensive care unit than when well rested.

Through the course of their residency, one in five medical residents will make a sleepless-related medical error that causes significant, liable harm to a patient.  One in twenty will kill a patient due to a lack of sleep.”

Walker goes so far as to recommend that readers ask surgeons how long it’s been since they’ve slept, to get a base rate for the likelihood of a critical error, and delay any non-critical surgeries if surgeons haven’t slept enough.

Okay, fair enough: but where’s the culture angle?  Walker notes there’s a fraternity-hazing-style “I suffered, so you must too” phenomenon in medical culture that perpetuates sleep deprivation as a rite of passage. 

In fact, Walker traces medicine’s disdain for sleep back to one Dr. William Halsted in the late 1800s – a cocaine addict who was barely functional at times but still had a meaningful long-term impact on the medical profession.

Is it ridiculous to trace a cultural transmission back that far?  To argue that a practice could persist for over a hundred years despite all the initial reasons being completely gone?

No, actually: the argument is at least plausible (though perhaps not provable).  David Oshinsky’s medical history “ Bellevue ( BV review + notes), which discusses Halsted and his cocaine addiction, is full of other examples of culturestatus quo bias among doctors.  One that’s particularly intriguing is still in full force today, and dates back to the same era as Halsted.

Did you know nonreligious circumcision was virtually nonexistent in the U.S. until 1876? That’s when Dr. Lewis Sayre decided removing boys’ foreskins was a cure-all for ailments as varied and impressive as “club foot, epilepsy, and serious mental conditions.”  Unsurprisingly, experiments were… well, we’ll charitably call them “unsupportive of the hypothesis.”

Sayre proceeded undeterred: a man with a hammer (technically, a pair of scissors) like Charlie Munger’s overeager gallbladder surgeon.  Snip snip.

Thanks largely to Sayre’s reputation and persistence, Oshinsky notes, “doctors would come to view circumcision as essential to the nation’s public health… an obscure religious ritual became, by 1900, a routine medical procedure for millions of American boys.”

Of course, the foreskin’s presence or absence was later determined to have no effect whatsoever on any of the conditions it was purported to impact.  Nonetheless, the procedure perpetuated via status quo biaspassing from father to son as if embedded in the Y chromosome.

Routine infant circumcision thus continues to be widespread a century and a half later… just like the medical profession’s attitude toward sleep that might be inspired by a cocaine addict.

Back to sleep, then: Walker similarly notes, in business contexts, that the culture reinforces a bizarrely unscientific view regarding sleep:

“Sleep deprivation degrades many of the key faculties required for most forms of employment.  

Why, then do we overvalue employees that undervalue sleep?

[…] there remains a contrived, yet fortified, arrogance in many business cultures focused on the uselessness of sleep.  It is bizarre […]

this mentality has persisted, in part, because certain business leaders mistakenly believe that time on-task equates with task completion and productivity.”

Walker elsewhere notes that there’s no replacement for proper sleep – not willpower, not caffeine, not brief naps, not nothing.

Perhaps even more insidious than the outright disrespect of sleep is the brutally misguided and ignorant view of probably 90%+ of the adult population on the issue of chronotypes.

By this, I’m talking about the mistaken assumption that early mornings are the end-all be-all answer to everything.  This anti-scientific yet deeply culturally embedded view is often put forth even by those who promote sleep and rest, like Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in “Rest” (rest review + notes) – that we would all be better off if we got up really early in the morning.   (In Soojung-Kim Pang’s defense, I really do quite like the book, except for the completely off-base part about mornings.) 

That view isn’t just wrong: science proves it’s slowly killing many of us.  Up to 70% of the population is sleep deprived, with deleterious consequences to health and productivity, and the sort of advice espoused by Soojung-Kim Pang would make that worse.

So why does this myth persist? Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg notes in his wonderful  Internal Time (IntTm review + notes) that there is worldwide culture-enforced morality on sleep schedules:

“practically every culture declares early risers as good and late risers as bad people.”

In America, this is often popularized by Ben Franklin’s “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” – a dictum, by the way, Franklin did not follow himself for much of his life (as anyone who studies him will find –  start with “ The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” ( ABF review + notes)). 

It turns out, however, that this is just another example of a bad idea getting stuck, Feynman-style: a mistaken idea that “is not profitable for the race.”  It’s stuck in there pretty good, and it’s our job (for the health and safety of both ourselves and our children) to get it unstuck.

Roenneberg’s research (discussed in more depth in the trait adaptivityand sleep mental models) explores how our internal clocks synchronize with external light sources to align our wake and sleep cycles with the 24-hour day; the dramatic change in lighting from all-natural to predominantly artificial has led to the vast majority of individuals shifting later in theirchronotypes (i.e., being night owls).

While the variation between early and late risers used to be modest, on the order of a few hours – and still is, under natural lighting conditions (like camping trips) – the differences are dramatically amplified by modern lighting. 

The “constant twilight” we live in thanks to dim offices/houses in the morning (relative to bright sunlight) and bright lights and LED screens at night (relative to outside darkness) changes the way our circadian rhythms entrain. 

It results in extreme “larks” rising well before dawn (sometimes even before 5 AM), and extreme “owls” biologically unable to fall asleep until 2-3 AM or even later, thus having difficulty rising before late morning or early afternoon.

Roenneberg notes that this change invalidates the old assumption of morning superiority, because if being up early is so great, guess what: extreme late types are awake BEFORE early birds get up:

Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, with a clock.
Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, with a clock.

“As long as all individuals have similar [chronotypes],  the earliest bird has an advantage over anyone getting up later.  This was probably true for most preindustrial societies; hence the persistence of the early-bird proverbs.  

[But under modern circumstances]… the temporal chicken-and-egg problem starts to apply […] [extremely] late chronotypes would still be awake [before early birds rise].  There is no reason why these extreme late types couldn’t gather all the mushrooms before the early risers arrived […]

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society.”

Roenneberg goes on to explore the culture-driven, “frighteningly low and shallow” quality of discussion in public forums on the issue of chronotypes:

“I am often asked whether we cannot get used to given working hours merely through discipline and by confining our sleep habits to certain times.  The assumption inherent in this question is that the human body clock can synchronize to social cues.

I tend to find that any such questioner, who usually also displays a somewhat disdainful tone toward the weakness of late chronotypes, is an early type – someone who has never experienced the problems associated with the scallop-shaped sleep-wake behavior of late chronotypes.”

Research by Christopher Barnes finds similar conclusions: even if the employees have the exact same performance, managers prefer early birds to night owls (unless those managers are night owls themselves).  As Barnes summarizes in the linked piece for HBR:

“The implications of this research are not pretty. It seems likely that some employees are experiencing a decrement in their performance ratings that is not based on anything having to do with their actual performance…

Senior managers must intervene in some way to keep supervisors from essentially punishing [night owls]… they should be doing the opposite; if they encourage the use of flextime, they will produce the benefits noted by previous research.

As with other areas of unintentional but proven bias, the advice is to increase managers’ awareness of their tendency to stereotype and why it is invalid. They must be continually reminded to recognize their cognitive tendencies and adjust for them.”

Unfortunately, all too few people are pushing for the world to recognize and adjust for this bias – which is part of the reason I chose to highlight it here: for the sake of our national public health.

Roenneberg, as well as Walker in “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes), explores how adolescents’ learning is impaired by current school start times (let alone pre-school athletics); merely starting school one hour later leads to massive jumps in grades and SAT scores – far more than can likely be accomplished by any other costless intervention.

Walker’s research suggests it would also lead to lower rates of mental health  conditions ranging from depression/anxiety to schizophrenia – and fewer car crashes – for teenagers.

This doesn’t just apply to teenagers; sleep deprivation is a major problem for adults, too.  Roenneberg notes:

“In view of the lateness of most people in our modern societies, one could argue that a majority of the workforce is scheduled in a permanent early shift when they work from nine to five.”

Shift work has been labeled a probable carcinogen by the WHO due to the research on chronic health conditions related to sleep; the same research applies to night owls forced to wake up early.  

There’s also tangible evidence on the acute conditions: among other data, there’es the natural experiment of Daylight Savings Time – cardiovascular events routinely drop (and rise) by 20% on the one day per year we get about one more (or less) hour of sleep.  

In addition to the health consequences, productivity is impacted by this culture bizarro-world.  Roenneberg notes that:

“cognitive states (like vigilance, alertness, and attention) and skills (like motor coordination, performing simple calculations, or memory tasks) are as much under the control of the body clock as sleep and wakefulness.”

Walker takes it a step further:

“When a night owl is forced to wake up too early, their prefrontal cortex remains in a disabled, ‘offline’ state.  Like a cold engine after an early-morning start, it takes a long time before it warms up to operating temperature […]

Sadly, society treats night owls rather unfairly on two counts.  First is the label of being lazy […] night owls are not owls by choice.  They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.

Second is the engrained, un-level playing field of society’s work scheduling, which is strongly biased toward early start times that punish owls and favor larks.  Although the situation is improving, standard employment schedules force owls into an unnatural sleep-wake rhythm…”

Walker goes on to note the numerous health consequences of this scheduling (which range from no-good to very bad).

After decades of detailed sleep research, what’s Walker’s recommendation for businesses, if they want to lower their health insurance costs (via healthier workers) and dramatically boost their productivity?  The exact opposite of the current butt-in-chair-at-9-o’-clock-sharp culture:

“everyone would be present during a core window for key interactions – say, twelve to three p.m.  Yet there would be flexible tail ends either side to accommodate all individual chronotypes.

Owls could start work late (e.g., noon) and continue into the evening, giving their full force of mental capacity and physical energy to their jobs.  Larks can likewise do so with early start and finish times.”

And yet this is far from the norm; in fact, even many highly intelligent and highly educated people – including, perhaps, some readers of this site, no doubt – simply refuse to believe the exhaustive and irrefutable research data on sleep and chronotypes because our culture has perpetuated a mistaken idea that’s not profitable for the race: the idea that we can do without sleep, and that we (rather than our bodies) can choose when we sleep.

Walker notes, in response to people who claim that they’re just fine on six hours of sleep, that a substantial body of data on the correlation between sleep and performance suggests it’s more likely that they’ll be struck by lightning.  Research demonstrates that – like buzzed wannabe drivers at the bar demanding their keys – when we’re sleep-deprived, we don’t know how sleep-deprived we are.  The solution is the same: sleep it off, and we’ll feel better in the morning.  (Or afternoon, as the case may be.)

Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) and Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes) are both profoundly important books that, hopefully, will serve as Thaler-style “nudges” to reset the inaccurate conception of sleep in our culture.  Buy a few copies and pass them around, please:

In the interest of  salience, since stories are more effective than statistics: in case you were wondering: yes, I’m a late chronotype, i.e. “night owl,” and “early” for me means “before noon.”

It’s somewhat difficult to reconcile the half a million words of content on this website, ACM’s inception-to-date performance, the impressions of anyone who’s ever met me, and my resume with “laziness.”

If there was anything I could do to get up earlier and maintain my health and mental acuity, I would’ve done so by now.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  I strongly believe in agency and  structural problem solving.

But there’s not – at least not within the confines of modern electronic life and a desk job.  (I entrain to sunlight pretty darn well on backpacking trips, for reasons Roenneberg’s research explains.)

One of the most important reasons I left my old job to run ACM is that I simply can’t work a 9-to-5 job without severely impairing my physical health and cognitive capabilities.  I was completely and totally miserable, almost completely because of lack of sleep.

I got as much research done in the month or two after quitting – and regaining full cognitive function thanks to proper sleep – than I did in the year before I quit.

To the extent that your organization might be entirely missing out on talent, or reducing the productivity of half your workforce, by discriminating against late chronotypes, it’s your loss…

Application / impact: cultural norms regarding sleep and chronotypes are one of the best, and most critical, examples of a mistaken idea passed down through generations through culture and status quo bias.  Buck the norm, and educate the people around you about the real data and research on the importance of sleep and chronotypes.