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Old Habits Die Hard

By Peter Lloyd

You'd be justified in suspecting the worst, should you ever walk into a room where I perform the following demonstration.

You'll see a blindfolded subject with four ropes tied to his or her waist. The ropes extend out to four others adults from the front, back, left, and right of the subject.

I drop a 50-dollar bill on the floor somewhere between the subject and the others.

"The object," I instruct the five, "is for the person in the middle to pick up the money. The four on the corners can help, using the ropes, but without speaking."

Silently the four in the circumference gently tug the subject toward the money, coaxing him or her to move, stoop, and grab the cash. They always succeed and everybody's happy.

That's when I change the game. It's no longer a collaboration led by an external network, because this time I blindfold the four at the ends of the ropes and unmask the subject in the center.

"The object," I repeat, "is for the person in the middle to pick up the money..."

Most groups stand dumbfounded! The subject in the center, who can see the money, needs no help from the perimeter. Simply bend down and pick up the loot. But most subjects just stand there! And we're talking about grown-up, educated, professional, people.

Is this really such unusual behavior? How often, after the game changes, do we humans continue to play by the old rules?

New technology is often a game changer. But some players, like the roped subject in my experiment, fail to adapt.

Many early films looked staged until directors like Orson Welles showed us that the film is its own art form, not just an exercise in shooting a play. Rather than playing with the camera and letting its new capabilities drive artistic innovation, the earliest filmmakers let the old habit of staging a story drive.

It took a while to break the habit of lighting from above, staging entrances and exits, mounting the camera and blocking to it.

Even everyday technological upgrades can change the game and vex users well versed in old habits.

John Gruber writes in his Daring Fireball blog about old shortcut habits from old Mac OS to Mac OS X.

"I cannot convince my fingers not to use Cmd-N as the Finder shortcut for making a new folder. Over and over, time after time, I end up with a new Finder window instead of the new folder I wanted."

Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard. In short, habits form neural pathways in the brain. Breaking a habit sets up new pathways, but a simple reminder of the old habit resets the old pathways. As anyone trying to quit smoking will tell you.

"We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again," explains Ann Graybiel of MIT's McGovern Institute.

But the rope exercise is a new habit. Yes, the details are new but the configuration is very old--facilitator or teacher giving directions and subjects or students doing what they're told.

It takes a spirit of defiance, skepticism, or critical analysis to break old or new habits. Spirit worth cultivating. Or at least, whenever innovation changes the game, make a habit of reviewing all the rules and discarding all those that no longer apply.
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