Subject:  Status Quo Bias – Ham Butt Problem

Event:  Lexicographer Erin McKean presents a TED talk, 2007

Often we go on doing things the way they have always been done.  If the old way works and is efficient, this really is not a problem.  However, sometimes we do something the old way without consciously thinking about why we are doing it this way or about how we might do it more efficiently and effectively.  Psychologists call this cognitive error the status quo bias.

A perfect illustration of the problem with the status quo bias was provided by Lexicographer Erin McKean in a TED Talk she presented on this day in 2007.  McKean called it the Ham Butt Problem:


(Wikimedia Commons)

A woman’s making a ham for a big, family dinner. She goes to cut the butt off the ham and throw it away, and she looks at this piece of ham and she’s like, “This is a perfectly good piece of ham. Why am I throwing this away?” She thought, “Well, my mom always did this.” So she calls up mom, and she says, “Mom, why’d you cut the butt off the ham, when you’re making a ham?” She says, “I don’t know, my mom always did it!” So they call grandma, and grandma says, “My pan was too small!” (1)

As a lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, McKean was using the ham butt anecdote to illustrate the way that online dictionaries should change our thinking about dictionaries.  Before the internet, paper dictionaries limited our ability to capture words and their definitions.  Like the pan, we needed to abridge the English lexicon to make it fit between the pages.  With the internet, however, we no longer need to limit our language; instead, we are free to capture all the words and definitions and publish them.

In broader terms, the Ham Butt Problem should remind us that when it comes to thinking, our default is to “go with what we know” rather than to question the way we have always done something or thought about something.  To make life more interesting and to live more creatively, we should question the status quo.  This doesn’t mean you always need to change; it just means you’ll be more conscious and more confident about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  Gold medalist Dick Fosbury, for example, might have continued to do the high jump the way others did it:  the traditional straddle-style or scissor method. One day, however, he paused and considered a different way to propel his body over the bar.  His thinking resulted in the Fosbury Flop, a status quo-busting new method that all high jumpers use today.  On October 20, 1968, Fosbury set an Olympic record jumping 7 feet 4 ¼ inches at the Mexico City Games.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the ‘Ham Butt Problem,’ and how does it illustrate the status quo bias?

Challenge – Status Quo? No!:   The writer Salman Rushdie said, “Original thought, original artistic expression is by its very nature questioning, irreverent, iconoclastic.”  The term “Iconoclast” describes a person who attacks the status quo.  Instead of sticking with cherished beliefs, traditional thinking, and established institutions, an iconoclast looks for new ways to think and new ways to do things.  Do some research on people who shed the status quo bias and earned the title iconoclast. Who is one person you would hold up as the quintessential iconoclast?


March 8, 1841:  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was born on this day in Boston, Massachusetts.  Holmes, a true iconoclast, served as a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932.  He said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” 


1-McKean, Erin. “The Joy of Lexicography.” TED 2007.

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