An old saying goes that ‘better known evil than good yet to know’. Conventional wisdom highlights our tendency to prefer things to remain as they are, unless, obviously, they are terrible. In fact, even in adverse situations that are far from ideal, but in which we have found a certain balance, we tend to prefer continuity to disruption, a known past to an uncertain future. Sometimes it is almost as if we prefer the certainty of misfortune to the misfortune of uncertainty.
That is the reason why we stick to old habits and defend certain customs that, rationally, are inexplicable. That is also the reason why we get stuck in toxic relationships and environments. And it is the reason why it is so difficult to change a social system, a cultural pattern or an ingrained way of doing things. That tendency to cling to what we know has a name: status quo bias.
What exactly is status quo bias?
The status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current situation. In practice, once we establish or acknowledge a baseline, it becomes a benchmark and any change to it is perceived as a loss or threat, even if it is positive.
Curiously, the expression comes from the Latin phrase statu quo ante bellum (the state of things before the war) that was used in peace treaties. The phrase implied the withdrawal of the troops from the battlefield and the return to the state before the war, resuming the old way of doing things and the order that reigned before the chaos.
Today, the status quo bias permeates different areas of our lives. An example of the status quo bias is when we buy a new mobile phone. Interestingly, the more options we have, the more likely we are to leave the default options that the manufacturer has selected, limiting ourselves to changing the wallpaper, the ringtone and two or three more functions. That means that inertia has enormous power over our decisions and behaviors, from the most important to the most banal.
Tell me where you start from and I will tell you where you will arrive
The status quo bias can be very crippling, severely limiting our options and prospects for the future. In practice, the starting point that we establish determines where we will arrive, simply because we will not dare to go further or do not even take it into consideration.
A regulation applied in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania proves it. Both states (inadvertently) conducted a large-scale experiment on status quo bias. They offered citizens the choice between two types of car insurance: a cheaper policy that limited the right to sue, and a more expensive one that did not set limits on claims. New Jersey drivers were offered the cheapest policy by default, although they could choose a more expensive one, while Pennsylvania drivers were offered the most expensive option by default, although they could also choose the other alternative.
In 1990, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania studied the psychological effect of this baseline and found that only 23% of New Jersey drivers chose the most expensive policy that included the right to sue. However, that number rose to 53% for Pennsylvania drivers.
In practice, the default option from which we start influences our decisions, even though we are aware that we can change. We simply do not do it out of inertia, we prefer to stay anchored to the baseline that we already know or that others have prepared for us. That, obviously, limits our options and often leads us to inconvenient scenarios that do not fit our real needs.
The 3 psychological pillars that sustain the status quo bias
1. Aversion to loss
When it comes to making a change, we all weigh potential losses and compare them to gains. The problem is that we are not very rational in that comparison since we place much more value on losses than on gains. An experiment conducted by researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia confirmed this.
Suppose you are given the option to place a bet. If you flip a coin and it comes up heads, you win X dollars and if it comes up tails you lose 100 dollars. How much does X need to be for you to be willing to bet? Most of the participants answered about 200 dollars. That means that only the prospect of earning 200 dollars makes up for the loss of 100. We have a strong desire to keep what belongs to us and we refuse to incur losses, unless the gains can double them. This aversion to loss ties us to situations that are not optimal and prevents us from taking advantage of new opportunities.
2. Fear of uncertainty
The status quo is something we are familiar with. It is that comfort zone in which we move with relative comfort or with knowledge of the facts. We have some control over the circumstances because we can anticipate quite precisely what is going to happen. That gives us a certain sense of security that we are not willing to give up so easily.
However, changing the status quo often means embracing the uncertain. When we dare to leave the known, we do not know with certainty what awaits us or what will happen, which generates anxiety and fear. That is why we prefer to stay in that familiar zone, even though we are aware that we could do better or improve our circumstances. The fear of uncertainty is simply too great and paralyzing.
3. Resistance to change
The mere exposure to situations makes us get used to them. That is why, in our mind, existing states are usually better than new ones. We have accumulated some experience and we know how to react, so we just have to activate the default response patterns that have already worked.
The change implies an alteration of that system and means having to look for alternative answers whose effectiveness we have not verified. That takes more effort. That is why we resist. To this is added that we tend to perceive the existing situations as more true and authentic, so that we will give them greater importance compared to hypothetical situations that we have not yet experienced.
The balance between the status quo and inevitable change
Research by neuroscientists at University College London looked at the neural pathways involved in status quo bias and found that the more difficult the decision we are faced with, the more likely it is that we will not act and let others or circumstances decide for us.
In practice, we suffer analysis paralysis. The simple prospect of having to weigh many options against their pros and cons blocks us. That is why we chose the simplest path: maintain the status quo, stick to what we know. That means always buying the same brand, always voting for the same party, always following the same religión, always staying in the same circle of friends, the same city for life, always doing the same job …
However, these neuroscientists also found that the status quo bias is not usually the best solution as it leads to more errors in decision making. In other words, thinking that what we know is the best solution is a fallacy. Staying within the limits of the known can be convenient in some cases, but holding on to it leads us to deny the only truth inherent in life: change. If our needs, aspirations, expectations and ways of seeing life change over time, it is illogical to cling to the status quo.
When we deny change and stay anchored in what is familiar, we run the risk of clinging to patterns of behavior that can quickly become anachronistic and maladaptive. That is why we need to constantly reevaluate our decisions and beliefs, asking ourselves if they are still valid for the current circumstances. We need to find a balance between the security of the status quo and the possibilities of change. We need to learn to use the past as a stepping stone and not as a sofa, as Harold MacMillan wrote.
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Kahneman, D. et. Al. (1991) Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. The Journal of Economic Perspectives; 5(1): 193-206.
Hershey, J. et. Al. (1990) What Is the Right to Sue Worth? Wharton School, Universidad de Pensilvania.
Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1984) Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist; 39(4): 341–350.