elephant in room meeting

When We Ignore Problems To Avoid Their Solutions

Jacob Mohrmann
Research and Insights Manager, Maritz 

Editor’s Note: We all know that if we don’t acknowledge a problem, we can’t find a solution. It seems that the reverse is true, too. If we won’t acknowledge a potential solution, we can’t address the problem.


Why do some Americans support “The Affordable Care Act” but oppose “Obamacare” (even though they’re the same thing)? While there may be several psychological factors at play, a big part of their “political reasoning” can be attributed to something called “solution aversion.”

“Solution aversion” is the behavioral principle – a nugget, perhaps – which explains why people are less likely to agree that something’s a problem if they have an aversion to the solutions associated with the problem. While people might want affordable health care, they won’t even admit health care is unaffordable if the solution requires giving credit to someone they don’t like. 

Titans fall when they refuse to confront or acknowledge the existence of major problems in their business or industry.

Researchers Troy Campbell of the University of Oregon and Aaron Kay of Duke University set out to prove this effect in an experiment. In a 2014 paper, they first looked at science skepticism in politics because belief in a given scientific statement should be the same regardless of what the proposed solution is … but it’s not.

A blog post, written by Troy himself, sums it up by saying,

In one study, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read [3.2 degrees in the 21stcentury], when the solution was government regulation. But, when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement.

They also tested out this effect in other policy contexts with various ideologies, all of which can be found in the paper.

We could surely brainstorm endless political and social examples of this principle, but PeopleScience is committed to discussing how behavioral principles and phenomena apply to the modern marketplace, i.e. the private sector. (Editor’s note: OK, Jacob, I won’t zap you with the cattle prod … yet.)

Titans fall when they refuse to confront or acknowledge the existence of major problems in their business or industry. While there are likely many reasons for this (such as status quo bias, misaligned incentives, difficulty of change/innovation, perceived risk, etc.), it likely occurs more when solutions seem undesirable or difficult or they don’t fit in with the decisions makers’ and executives’ current worldview or values.

It likely occurs more when solutions seem undesirable or difficult or they don’t fit in with the decisions makers’ and executives’ current worldview or values.

Consider Kodak, a prominent example of a failure to innovate. The company failed to fully adapt to digital cameras and online sharing, partly out of fear of cannibalizing their own film market and a reluctance to fully embrace new technologies which might eclipse the film business itself. And it wasn’t that they weren’t aware of the new technologies nor that they didn’t invest in them – they actually invested in the tech,  created a digital camera and bought the online service Ofoto – they just didn’t completely embrace the solution. It’s certainly plausible that they convinced themselves the problem was small and manageable because they were averse to the solution of fully switching the business to digital and online sharing. Certainly, a form of solution aversion – working alongside the sunk cost fallacy – seems likely to have played a role. 

 (Editor’s note: There’s not much work specifically tying sunk cost and solution aversion – in part because solution aversion is a lesser known principle – but there seems to be a logical connection. Nonetheless, “seems to be” and “likely” is not the same as “scientifically proven,” so … let’s test it?!)

There are numerous small ways solution aversion does play out in our organizations every day.

  • We might convince ourselves an underperforming vendor is working out because the solution is to fire them and that might involve a difficult conversation and a new, painful RFP process.
  • A restaurant might downplay the importance of making it easier for customers to pay when the solution is a wonky and expensive new cash register, as opposed to something easy, like Square.
  • An executive might downplay the importance of increasing retention by paying employees more when he knows the solution would take money out of executive bonuses or another budget area.
  • A marketing VP might downplay customer retention and engagement as opposed to awareness and acquisition because of how much harder it is to measure and produce the former.

These scenarios are not exclusively in the “solution aversion” bucket, but it is in the mix. The point is, we often convince ourselves something is or isn’t a problem because of how the solution makes us feel. Is the solution difficult or easy? Does it conflict with our values and identity? Or is it just going to be a lot of work and trouble?

Are there solution aversion solutions?

Troy’s post discusses a few different approaches for tackling the issue of solution aversion. Changing or clarifying the solution, affirming ideology and identity, and reward substitution are among the ways around this challenging problem. 

Awareness of solution aversion is great start, including the many different ways it can impact a single issue. If, for instance, you propose investing in a new innovation, this will likely be seen as a costly risk, and stakeholders might be averse to that innovation solution. On the other hand, it could be framed as equally risky to be left behind, a threat to the business and jobs (and decision makers’ bonuses). On the other hand – you have three hands – if you’re presenting this to a manager, and they are evaluated on stability and short-term metrics, they may be averse to solutions involving long-term investment. This could color their evaluation of whether the problem is important. And so on and so on until you run out of hands.

Solution aversion is an additional, hidden yet powerful barrier to organizational change.

Ultimately, we need to understand the perspective and motivation of our peers and colleagues and fully acknowledge that solution aversion is an additional, hidden yet powerful barrier to organizational change.

On a simpler level, companies must consider whether employees, managers and even executives are actually incentivized to question processes and pursue new ideas or whether they are incentivized to be solution averse and maintain the status quo. This can be the difference between having your organization treated like an industry trailblazer or being taught as a Kodak-style cautionary tale.

PS – Don’t think this principle doesn’t apply to me. I wrote this article a month later than I was planning, because I was averse to the idea of trying something new and writing a PeopleScience article. I thus lowered my evaluation of the importance of writing it (sorry, Jeff). (Editor’s note: I need to be meaner.)

Jacob Mohrmann
Research and Insights Manager, Maritz 


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