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.

Example: Status quo bias
You are having dinner with your friends at a restaurant you go to often. Looking at the menu, you feel tempted to try a new dish. However, you are really hungry, and you don’t want to risk choosing something you don’t like.

Because of status quo bias, you want to be on the safe side. You order the same dish as you always do, rather than take the risk on a new (and potentially tastier) option.

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.

Example: Status quo bias and technology 
In one study, researchers explored status quo bias through the lens of people’s evaluations of different technologies via a series of experiments.

The first experiment tested how people perceive aerogel or ‘frozen smoke’, a real but unfamiliar technology. Aerogel is a foam-like material that has been used as the insulating material in the spacesuits of NASA astronauts since the 1960’s. Participants, whose ages were recorded, were told that this was invented either 15 years before or after they were born. People were more favourable towards it when told that aerogel preceded their birth than when told that it was invented after they were born. In the latter case, they were actually sceptical about its use.

In follow-up studies, researchers showed participants more than 60 different technologies, and then collected information about when they were born, their exposure to that technology, etc. Interestingly, the same pattern emerged.

It seems that technology invented before we were born becomes the status quo (i.e., it is assumed to already be part of how the world works). Because of this, we tend to evaluate it more positively. Status quo bias appears to hold true even when people think the technology is older than it actually is (like in the aerogel experiment). We then tend to be more sceptical or pessimistic about technologies invented after we were born.

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.

Example: Status quo bias in marketing
A number of soft-sell techniques used in business exploit status quo effects:

  • Taking advantage of default behaviours (for example, a subscription service that auto-renews unless you cancel it)
  • Money-back guarantees and free trials without any obligation (these are frequently used to reduce the perceived risk of loss and regret)
  • Offering incentives such as cash for switching (a common practice in traditional banks)
  • Taking advantage of loss aversion. This is often the case with cable, internet, and phone bundles. Providers usually charge customers for switches to an upgraded package because they hope to persuade the customer that it is wise to begin with the upgraded package. Thus, these expensive packages become the status quo.

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

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 10). What Is Status Quo Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 22 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-status-quo-bias/

Sources

Hofmann, B. (2020). Progress bias versus status quo bias in the ethics of emerging science and technology. Bioethics, 34(3), 252–263. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12622

Smiley, A., & Fisher, M. P. A. (2022). The Golden Age Is Behind Us: How the Status Quo Impacts the Evaluation of Technology. Psychological Science, 33(9), 1605–1614. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976221102868

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.