Status Quo Bias: Why Things Feel Stuck Sometimes

When cognitive bias maintains the status quo and prevents change.

Posted Jun 22, 2020

Change tends to be difficult. This is true whether the change in question is something as personal as a New Year's resolution or as impersonal as updating a business procedure or law. Nevertheless, it is not always clear why things get so "stuck" and tend to continue the status quo, especially in instances where there are obvious improvements to be gained from changing.

Fortunately, behavioral economics research has evaluated this "status quo bias" for over 30 years. So, let's explore when it happens, why, and what you can do about it.

Research and Replication on Status Quo Bias

The initial research exploring whether individuals tend to choose to maintain the status quo was conducted by Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988). Their research was also recently replicated by Xiao, Lam, Piara, and Feldman (2020). In both studies, participants were given a questionnaire discussing a series of decision-making scenarios.

  • Some of those scenarios were personal, such as asking how the participant might invest a sum of money they inherited, which college professor position they might consider from a number of options, or their preference of color for purchasing a new car.
  • Other scenarios were more work-oriented, asking participants to either select among price bids for contracts on behalf of an employer or choose among lease options for office space for a personal consulting firm.
  • Finally, additional scenarios were more political, such as deciding among different budget allocations for the National Highway Safety Commission, considering options for increasing state prisons, or to act as a water commissioner and choose among different water distribution plans for residents.

These scenarios and questions were used to evaluate status quo bias by slightly changing how they were worded from participant to participant. Some participants received a particular question with status quo framing, where one of the choices was worded as the default, or current choice, already being used—and the rest were discussed as changes from that current choice. Other participants received the same question with neutral framing, where the options were simply provided in a menu and no discussion of defaults or previous choices were mentioned.

Results from the initial study by Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988), as well as the replication by Xiao, Lam, Piara, and Feldman (2020), generally supported a status quo bias. In the majority of cases, when a pre-existing or status quo option was suggested, the participants were more likely to stick with that option than to change to something different. In contrast, when all options were labeled in neutral terms, there was no such preference.

Nevertheless, not all questions showed such status quo bias. For example, the replication by Xiao, Lam, Piara, and Feldman (2020), failed to show such status quo bias on the selection of car colors. They surmised that the bias might be less likely to occur in that scenario because (1) changing the car color did not have a large potential risk or cost involved and (2) individuals often have strong internal preferences for color choices. This analysis led to a larger consideration of the mechanisms involved in the bias itself as well.

Why Do People Maintain the Status Quo?

In their larger analysis, Xio, Lam, Piara, and Feldman (2020) offer a number of possible explanations for why people tend to choose the status quo option. Generally, these explanations fall into two domains: rational and un-rational.

On the rational side, many of these decisions are made with incomplete information and under a great deal of uncertainty. Given that, sticking with something relatively known could be seen as a better alternative than choosing something more unknown. Essentially, this is the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" explanation.

On the un-rational side, sometimes decisions are risky and involve some chance of loss and regret. Often, those emotions lead us to play it safe and avoid possible losses due to change. Taken together then, even when the status quo is bad, we may tend to prefer the continued certainty of a misery that we know over the risk of some uncertain loss that we don't know.

These explanations were combined in a model by Dean, Kibris, and Masatlioglu (2016) as well. The authors concluded that status quo bias works through two mechanisms.

On one hand, the bias focuses attention on a specific sub-set of choices, especially when the number of choices is high and/or attention is limited. On the other hand, the bias also more directly changes our preferences, both within an initial choice and over time.

Essentially then, when we are overwhelmed with choices, have limited information, or have an inability to fully pay attention and consider a choice, then we are more likely to fall prey to the status quo bias—and to simply maintain the status quo.

Breaking Free of the Status Quo

Given the research results, it appears that we do have a tendency to bias decision-making toward maintaining the status quo—in both personal and public decisions. Fortunately, the explanations above also offer some potential solutions to reduce such status quo bias as well. Specifically, the following steps can help:

1. Take Time and Pay Attention: In general, we avoid deeply thinking about things because it takes work and effort to do so. When we are overwhelmed, unsure, or emotional, we avoid that effort even more and tend to rely on quick and biased thinking instead. While in that avoidant or overwhelmed frame of mind then, one of the easiest and fastest biases is simply to keep doing what we have done before—without giving it any more consideration at all! Therefore, the first step in breaking free of the status quo is to make an effort to calm down, pay attention, and think through all of the options and information available.

2. Look at Both Losses and Gains: When considering decisions, we also tend to get stuck on certain perspectives and frames of reference. Particularly, we want to avoid negative feelings, like loss and regret. From that perspective, we often view a "change" from the status quo mostly in terms of what we might lose in the change—rather than what we might gain from a switch.

This negative focus motivates us to see change as risky and keeps us picking the same thing, time after time. Thus, to break free of the status quo, it is also important to consider a decision from multiple perspectives. For example, looking at both the gains and losses (or pros and cons) of all of the available options, rather than staying stuck in one perspective, can help to reduce bias and promote more accurate decision-making.

3. Consider Other Sources of Information: A lot of the time, we jump to a quick conclusion because we are uncertain about our choices or options. This can be because we do not have a lot of information about the options available, or are overwhelmed with the number of choices.

In either case, when we are uncertain, we tend to simply pick the option we know the most about—which is usually the option we have already picked before. Given that, if we want to do something different, then we have to get information about those other options too.

One of the most frequent ways we do that is by seeing what other people are choosing. Particularly, pay attention to people who are doing something different from your status quo (or the status quo in general). Investigate why they are picking that option, especially the pros and cons they experience from that choice. That will give you another source of information to help you more carefully consider the other options and changes available to you as well.

These same steps are helpful when trying to help someone else overcome status quo bias, or making larger systemic changes too. In both cases, the individuals involved need to be given time and encouragement to think carefully about the situation. Otherwise, pressuring or rushing them instead will simply make them double-down on their pre-existing beliefs and choices.

Decision-makers also need to be guided to evaluate the options from various perspectives and through consideration of multiple sources of information. This will help them see things from various points of view, including your own.

Overall, this is the general framework for an educational and information-based central route persuasion strategy as well. Such an approach takes time and effort to accomplish, but the resulting change in attitudes and behaviors (either individual or systemic) is often more robust and longer-lasting too.

© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Dean, M., Kibris, O., & Masatlioglu, Y. (2017). Limited attention and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Theory, 169, 93-127.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.

Xiao, Q., Lam, C. S., Paira, M., & Feldman, G. (2020). Revisiting status quo bias: Replication of Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339167597_Revisiting_status_quo_bias_Replication_of_Samuelson_and_Zeckhauser_1988