Don’t Expect Change From The R&D Camp



This week the NHL is pondering some rule changes at its annual research and development camp. James Mirtle elaborated on some of the proposals over at the Globe and Mail. The proposed changes include: no-touch icing, removal of the trapezoid, and no line-changes after an offside. In all there are over 32 new ideas on the table. While a good idea in principle the way the NHL has structured these camps actually makes change more difficult.

Generally speaking the NHL advances at a glacial pace. These camps show willingness on the league’s part to make the game more enjoyable for fans, and safer for the players. Unfortunately, people are wired to resist change. Further complicating matters is that the manner in which changes are proposed as well as the number of potential options makes change less likely. It turns out we don’t always think the ice is whiter on the other side. 

Status Quo Bias 

The presence of a status quo option affects the decisions we make. This tendency was first examined by Richard Zeckhauser and William Samuelson in a 1988 study entitled Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. The abstract explains that “most real decisions, unlike those of economics texts, have a status quo alternative-that is, doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision. A series of decision-making experiments shows that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo.”If we were all purely rational “only preference-relevant features of the alternatives influence the individual’s decision. Thus, neither the order in which the alternatives are presented nor any labels they carry should affect the individual’s choice.” Instead, Zeckhauser and Samuelson believed that “faced with new options, decision makers often stick with the status quo alternative, for example, to follow customary company policy, to elect an incumbent to still another term in office, to purchase the same product brands, or to stay in the same job.” Just how powerful is the status quo? 

Zechauser and Samuelson had participants fill out a questionnaire full of hypothetical choices. In one instance they were asked how they would invest a sum of money inherited from an uncle. Some were given questions that had no defined status quo option:

“You are a serious reader of the financial pages but until recently have had few funds to invest. That is when you inherited a large sum of money from your great-uncle. You are considering different portfolios. Your choices are to invest in: a moderate-risk company, a high risk company, treasury bills, municipal bonds." 

Others were posed the same question but worded so that one option was defined as the status quo. This time the inheritance from uncle penny-bags was:

“A portfolio of cash and securities… A significant portion of this portfolio is invested in a moderate risk company.” The respondents were told, “You are deliberating whether to leave the portfolio intact or change it by investing in other securities. (The tax and broker commission consequences of any change are insignificant.)" Same choice, just worded differently. 

 How did this affect the participant’s decisions? Their results implied that an alternative was more popular when it was designated as the status quo. In fact, “it is the relatively unpopular alternatives, not the popular ones, that receive the largest response-rate edge from occupying the status quo position.” Additionally, the popularity of the status quo increases with the number of alternatives. Their final conclusion was that, “in choosing among alternatives individuals display a bias toward sticking with the status quo.” 

Why the Research & Development Camp Impedes Change  

So what does this mean for the NHL? The NHL has a clearly defined status quo. In fact, Brendan Shanahan, senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations, stated that “from the outset, we conceived of the camp with the belief that our game has never been better.” People prefer the status quo when presented as an arbitrary designation, identifying the status quo as having “never been better” will make changes even less appealing. Because the attractiveness of the status quo is amplified by the number of alternatives, proposing over 32 will further reduce the allure of change.

Look at the above photo. The NHL would never seriously consider having one face-off dot. That blueline is comically wide. And the "crease" area by the benches would be a logistical nightmare. The only thing these "ideas" are doing is making the status quo more attractive.  

 In order to combat the influence of status quo bias the NHL should ensure that only alternatives with significant support from a majority of GMs and owners are voted upon. They should also acknowledge that the game is not perfect -which is implicit in the fact that they hold these camps- and that the right changes have the ability to improve the game. If the NHL wants meaningful change they need to make the status quo less appealing, and reduce the number of alternatives studied at these camps. The biggest thing keeping fans away is players like Sidney Crosby missing half a season due to a preventable head injury, not narrow blue-lines.    

  1. Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Kahneman, Daniel, Knetsch, Jack L., Thaler Richard H., The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 5, No. 1. (Winter, 1991), pp. 193-206 
  2. Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. Samuelson, William Samuelson, Zeckhauser, Richard, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (1998), 1: 7-59