What Is Status Quo Bias? | Definition & Examples
Status quo bias refers to people’s preference for keeping things the way they currently are. Under status quo bias, people perceive change as a risk or a loss. Because of this, they try to maintain the current situation. This can impact the quality of their decisions.
Status quo bias can create resistance to change, hinder progress, or cause us to miss out on valuable opportunities.
What is status quo bias?
Status quo bias is a type of cognitive bias. It describes our irrational preference for a default option simply because it preserves the current state of affairs. When faced with complex decisions, people tend to choose the status quo, even if it’s suboptimal. Phrases like ‘when in doubt, do nothing’, ‘better safe than sorry’, or ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ reflect this kind of mentality.
Across a range of everyday decisions, such as whether to change jobs, switch to another cell phone plan, or try a new restaurant, there is a tendency to refrain from shaking things up. However, it’s important to note that status quo bias doesn’t always mean a preference for doing nothing. When an action is the default, then status quo bias can lead to action bias. For example, when your insurance company sends you your new policy, you simply renew it without shopping around for alternatives.
Why does status quo bias occur?
One of the main drivers of the status quo bias is the difficulty of making decisions. In an effort to reduce complexity, people resort to a number of irrational mechanisms. These often result in a preference for the current option or situation. There are several concepts that contribute to the status quo bias:
- Loss aversion suggests that losses are twice as psychologically harmful as gains are beneficial. In other words, the feeling of losing £100 is twice as strong as the feeling of winning £100. This implies that in order for an individual to switch to an alternative option, it must be perceived as twice as beneficial as the status quo.
- Regret avoidance. When faced with a decision whose outcome is highly uncertain, individuals often anticipate and attempt to eliminate the possibility of regret. Because people feel more regret for negative outcomes resulting from new actions than from inaction, regret avoidance causes us to favour the status quo.
- The mere-exposure effect is the tendency to develop a preference for things or people that are familiar to us. As repeated exposure increases familiarity, we develop a preference for the status quo because we are more frequently exposed to it.
Ultimately, what is familiar to us becomes a reference point. When we have to choose between something we are familiar with and an alternative, we feel more comfortable going with what we know.
What is the impact of status quo bias?
While status quo bias is often considered to be irrational, it can have both a negative and a positive impact on our lives.
- Sticking with what worked well in the past prevents people from taking risks and can offer a certain degree of protection. Especially when it comes to complex or consequential decisions, sticking with the status quo helps reduce information overload and offers some psychological safety.
- Status quo bias also leads us to prefer things that have been around for longer. In other words, things that are time-tested are thought to be positive. Status quo bias lets the filter of time sort out what’s worth keeping and what’s not.
- At the same time, status quo bias leads to lazy decision-making, because we don’t consider all our options. As a result, our decisions are based on ease rather than sound reasoning. Because of this, we end up making suboptimal choices that are not in our best interest.
- A preference for the status quo on a societal level means a preference for things as they were in the past. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that things were better in the past. This type of mentality can prevent discussions on crucial issues and hinder progress (for example, regarding the rights of LQBTQI+ people).
Status quo bias example
Status quo bias can help explain why people are biased against new technology.
Businesses often try to take advantage of (or counteract) our natural preference for things to stay as they are, particularly with regard to our resistance to making an effort.
How to reduce status quo bias
Although status quo bias can’t be entirely eliminated, there are steps you can take in order to reduce it.
- Just like other types of bias that influence our judgement (such as anchoring bias), the most important step is to acknowledge that we have status quo bias. It is an innate tendency, and one of the most common pitfalls in decision-making.
- When presented with new options, ask questions to reduce uncertainty. Once you have all the facts, you can narrow down your choices. If you still find yourself favouring the status quo, ask yourself whether your decision is deliberate. Do you really see no advantage in changing, or do you resist change because of inertia?
- If you are trying to convince others (e.g., as a salesperson), use the framing effect. Presenting the default option as a loss and the alternative as a gain will help you circumvent people’s loss aversion. For example, explain to them what they would be missing out on if they didn’t switch to a different software or mobile phone plan.
Frequently asked questions
- Why is status quo bias a problem?
Status quo bias is a problem because it causes us to stick to our current situation without considering other options. Although sticking to tried and true solutions is not always bad, status quo bias prevents us from weighing the pros and cons of an alternative option. Because of this, our preference for what is familiar can make us resistant to change and cause us to miss out on new opportunities or experiences.
- What is a real-life example of status quo bias?
A real-life example of status quo bias can be observed in elections, where the incumbent candidate is more likely to win than the challenger. In fact, the more candidates are in the race, the greater the incumbent’s advantage. In an effort to reduce the complexity of the decision-making process and avoid choice overload, voters are more likely to stick with someone who is familiar because they know what to expect from them.
Sources for this article
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