Sphexishness OR The ability or inability to change behavior.

In the bookstore Morawa in downtown Vienna, a man collapses on his knees, raises his hands in the air and complains loudly about unheard-of things. What had happened? The traditional bookstore, which is located just across the street from the French bakery Parémi, which offers Vienna’s best croissant, had the gall to install new shelves and at the same time rearrange the arrangement of the book categories.

Now the slightly obese, about 70-year-old gentleman in a suit that was a little too loose knelt in front of the bookseller and grumbled about the re-layering that now made it impossible for him to find books. He didn’t let the bookseller, who wanted to help him and told him that he could come to him with questions, get a word in edgewise. The shopping basket with selected books stood next to the kneeling man, while other employees did not dare approach and watched the scene from a distance.

We already expected that there would be questions, but that someone would react like this to the rescheduling, we didn’t expect that….

…a saleswoman whispered to me. These changes had upset the customer so much that he threw a tantrum.

In my circle of acquaintances who deal with innovation and change and see it as something necessary and good, and above all as the only constant in life, they are aware that some experience change as something uncertain and unsettling, but they are sure that with a little help it will eventually be accepted. And then there are people who, like the customer in the bookstore, experience the kind of tantrum usually only known from three-year-olds.

There can be something very reassuring about a routine. People with OCD find them predictable and familiar. Obsessively washing one’s hands, checking several times to make sure the door is really locked, or keeping the exact time to eat. One small change, and life feels upside down for these people. This is understandable for each of us if we make a comparison: just change your routine when getting up. Don’t make a coffee first, don’t brush your teeth, shower or go to the toilet, but start completely off-key. And then watch yourself as the day goes. The whole day seems to be a failure. That’s exactly how it feels for these people, for whom even small changes already make them break out in a sweat.

This can also have an interesting effect. In order to get back on track, they try to repeat or resume the routine, with the hope that the day will succeed after all and that the world will go back to the way it was. In doing so, the changed conditions are ignored, as is the fact that the usual routine now makes less or no sense at all.

With sphex, a genus of digger wasp, such a repetition of routine has been observed that seems to have no end. It digs a hole, lays its eggs in it, catches an insect that it paralyzes with its venom injected through the stinger, and places the insect in the hole as food for the young wasps that later hatch from the eggs. Then it fills the hole with soil.

But while she is checking the burrow one last time, a researcher has moved the insect a few centimeters away from the hole. The wasp comes out, looks for the insect, drags it back to the hole, and starts inspecting the burrow again. In the meantime, the researcher removes the insect again by a few centimeters. The procedure is repeated dozens of times, the wasp seems to get into an endless loop of its routine.

Douglas Hofstadter called this inflexibility in the face of change sphexishness, after the digger wasp. Sphex is the name for wasp in ancient Greek.

The behavioral scientist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz also observed such an effect in his gray geese. If an egg falls out of the nest during brooding, the mother goose rolls it back into her nest with her beak. Lorenz removed the egg during the rescue attempt, but the gray goose continued the routine of her rescue operation to the end, even though she did not roll an egg in the process.

This behavior is triggered by a key stimulus. Here an egg that has fallen from the nest, there an insect that the wasp has dragged to the hole. Thereby an innate behavioral program is started, which is not changed by a change and is even repeated. This behavior can be broken out of after a few repetitions, but the number of repetitions can vary greatly. Thus, in the case of wasps, 50 or more times the behavior was repeatedly performed.

But the changed shelf arrangement was too much for our book lover. It threw him so out of his familiar habit that he didn’t know how to react other than to break out in a fit of rage. And in this he stuck. I heard him wailing, kneeling and throwing himself on the floor for minutes after.

In order to alleviate people’s fear or unease about change, the degree of sphexishness must be addressed. How open or closed are individual employees to change? What and how many steps need to be taken to bring employees along? What are the appropriate actions and how far-reaching are the individual steps that will move them from the old routine to a new one? Sometimes it helps to give the new routines a coat of the old. Approaches such as skeuomorphism, where, for example, on the iPhone the phone book app still imitated a physical phone book, can help.

Would that have helped our book customer? Probably not, because this was not a new technology that required a new approach, but simply a reordering of books and categories in the bookstore. And he didn’t want to go through the cognitive effort of searching again or asking a bookseller. But perhaps he was simply at the end of his willpower, whether because it had been a long day or he simply hadn’t eaten yet. And that can also hinder the ability to change.

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