The idea that moments of crisis form opportunities for fundamental policy change is widespread in political science and public policy. It is usually associated with historical institutionalism and the notion of 'critical junctures'. On the basis of an in-depth analysis of social policy responses in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden over the course of four global economic shocks, we ask whether the notion of critical junctures is useful in understanding the nature of change triggered by crisis. The main empirical finding is that fundamental change in the aftermath of an exogenous shock is the exception rather than the rule. Instead, incremental 'crisis routines' based on existing policy instruments are overwhelmingly used to deal with economic hardship. We discuss these findings in the light of the psychological 'threat-rigidity' effect and reflect on their consequences for theories of comparative policy analysis and institutional change. © 2014 © 2014 Taylor & Francis.