MySay: Why is the status quo so sticky?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 10, 2018 - December 16, 2018.
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My favourite lines in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, read:

“Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.”

That is as beautiful a definition of the concept of “path dependence” that I have ever come across, far eclipsing the language in the more common definition, “Path dependence is the idea that decisions we are faced with depend on past knowledge trajectory and decisions made, and are thus limited by the current competence base.”

Path dependence makes a thing sticky. In particular, it makes the status quo sticky. Once something is “conventional wisdom” or a “norm”, and if that something manages to persist over time, it can be extremely difficult to break from that norm. It is why change is so difficult and even agents of change, such as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, face giant-sized challenges in attempting to drive the changes that they had promised in their election manifesto.

Furthermore, we are now also seeing instances of PH making use of the previous status quo, such as lifting the moratorium on laws passed by the previous Barisan Nasional government, which it had promised to abolish, to handle an admittedly explosive situation — that of the riots at the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple.

But the question is, why go back to using those laws as part of the solution to this challenging situation? Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo clarified that while the moratorium is being lifted on the Prevention of Crime Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Sedition Act and Security Offences Special Measures Act, the use of the acts would be limited to incidents that threaten national security, public order and race relations.

Giving the minister the benefit of the doubt, maybe the new government won’t abuse those Acts, but I think it is still fair to question why the new government turned to those Acts rather than come up with more creative and innovative solutions. I think that the economics concept of path dependence — to be fair, the concept is widely used in many other fields — gives part of the answer.

In August 1911, an Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Peruggia went into the Louvre, hid, and snuck the painting out underneath his coat after the museum had closed for the day. At the time, the Mona Lisa was simply one of many highly valued works of art at the Louvre and was nowhere near the household name it is today. In fact, it took a day for the Louvre to actually realise that the painting had been stolen.

When the theft was discovered, images of the Mona Lisa were suddenly splashed across international newspapers. There was a manhunt for the thief, which garnered even more press coverage. Pablo Picasso was even tried for the theft of the painting, but was later exonerated.

As a result of the press fervour, the Mona Lisa became globally famous. As art history professor Noah Charney said, “There was nothing that really distinguished it per se, other than it was a very good work by a very famous artist — that is, until it was stolen. The theft is what really skyrocketed its appeal and made it a household name.”

Therefore, in a sense, the Mona Lisa was an early example of something that was “famous for being famous”. Once something becomes famous, it takes on a life of its own to the point that it becomes the status quo. This is path dependence in action.

In terms of natural human tendencies, path dependence is actually very natural. In his book, The Secret of Our Success, Harvard evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich writes, “Lower-status individuals preferentially attend to (watch and listen to) and imitate prestigious individuals. This attention and imitation is usually automatic and unconscious.”

As such, he argues, the nature of today’s ubiquitous 24/7 media means that, without conscious effort of their own, millions and millions of people end up “attending” to whoever popular media is covering. “An initial media exposure, accidental or by design, creates attention cues that cause people to unconsciously perceive someone as a worthy model.”

In the field of science, the late American sociologist Robert K Merton coined the term the “Matthew effect”, which describes how, among a wealth of other examples, eminent scientists will often get more credit than a relatively unknown scientist, even for similar work. In other words, credit will usually be given to researchers who are already historically established.

The Matthew effect is also prevalent in network science where researchers Alberto-Laszlo Barabasi and Reka Albert found that networks of web pages seem to follow the Power Law, where a large amount of web pages had very few links but a small amount of web pages had many links to other web pages. The authors asserted that this structure does not just describe the World Wide Web, but also many other networks such as the collaboration network of movie actors, and the electrical power grid of the Western United States.

Nature and the world are full of circumstances in which the consequences of a given event, whether those consequences occurred by chance or by design, set the status quo of today.

Coming back to the case of the government’s lifting of the moratorium on those various laws, perhaps a big part of the reason the government turned to the status quo is simply path dependence. They had been framed by the laws enacted by the previous government and given that those laws had processes and even institutions put in place to enforce them, it was simply a more straightforward choice, and the status quo lived on.

If, as anthropologist Joseph Henrich, puts it, “…how well a society functions depends on its package of social norms”, and if that package of social norms, which is entirely human-made and therefore include things such as legislative acts, is hugely influenced by path dependence, then it follows that the status quo of how a society functions is really difficult to break. Either we cannot conceive of alternative frameworks (like the fish in a fishbowl that does not know it is in a fishbowl) or there is too much societal inertia to change.

But when a given framework is outdated or there are better known alternative frameworks, we must change towards some alternative. It takes time, it takes courage, and it takes a willingness to deal with short-term pain in the hopes that in the long run, we can create a better, more well-functioning package of social norms, which will then lead to a better, more well-functioning society. Path dependence need not be destiny.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division

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