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How Powerful Is Status Quo Bias?

Understanding our intuitive biases can help us make better decisions.

Simon Hayhurst/Flickr
Source: Simon Hayhurst/Flickr

Status quo bias is a cognitive bias that explains our preference for familiarity. Many of us tend to resist change and prefer the current state of affairs. How powerful is this cognitive bias? Consider this thought experiment from the renowned philosopher, Robert Nozick:

"Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel like you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening. Would you plug into this machine for life?"

For most of us, our intuition is to say no. We might say something like, “There is more to life than pleasure," and cite the importance of our relationships with loved ones and connection to reality. And perhaps that’s true. But consider this variant on the above proposal:

"It is Saturday morning and you are planning to stay in bed for at least another hour when all of the sudden you hear the doorbell. Grudgingly, you step out of bed to go open the door. At the other side there is a tall man, with a black jacket and sunglasses, who introduces himself as Mr. Smith. He claims to have vital information that concerns you directly.

Mildly troubled but still curious, you let him in. ‘‘I am afraid I have to some disturbing news to communicate to you’’ says Mr. Smith. ‘‘There has been a terrible mistake. Your brain has been plugged by error into an experience machine created by neurophysiologists. All the experiences you have had so far are nothing but the product of a computer program designed to provide you with pleasurable experiences. All the unpleasantness you may have felt during your life is just an experiential preface conducive toward a greater pleasure (e.g. like when you had to wait in that long line to get tickets for that concert, remember?). Unfortunately, we just realized that we made a mistake. You were not supposed to be connected; someone else was. We apologize. That’s why we’d like to give you a choice: you can either remain connected to this machine (and we’ll remove the memories of this conversation taking place) or you can disconnect. However, you may want to know that your life outside is not at all like the life you have experienced so far.

What would you choose?"

This question comes from an experiment by Felipe De Brigard, a researcher at Duke University, who challenged the intuitions many of us hold when we read the original happiness machine thought experiment. One might think that individuals, when faced with the choice between reality and simulation, would consider contact with reality to be critical and therefore a clear majority of people would opt to exit the machine.

However, when De Brigard posed this question to participants and measured the responses, he found the opposite result. Among the respondents, 59 percent stated that they would prefer to remain connected to the machine, while only 41 percent stated that they would prefer to disconnect. The result of this study has interesting implications for the way we think about our capacity for change and our preference for the familiar.

When individuals are faced with the choice to change their environment or remain in their current state of affairs, even when the decision is between simulated familiarity and unknown reality, most will choose the familiar. It is likely that this is a form of risk aversion that is characteristic of status quo bias—that individuals averse to the risk of losing their current reality will choose to remain, even at the expense of living in real, rather than a virtual, reality.

Research from Kahneman and Tversky suggests that losses are twice as psychologically harmful as gains are beneficial. In other words, individuals feel twice as much psychological pain from losing $100 as pleasure from gaining $100. One interpretation is that in order for an individual to change course from their current state of affairs is that the alternative must be perceived as twice as beneficial. This highlights the challenges we may face when considering a change to our usual way of doing things.

When military members are considering their choices as their contract comes to an end, many consider re-enlisting simply because they are unaware of the many opportunities that exist for them. Even when we understand our current path is no longer beneficial or no longer makes us happy, we must still overcome the natural urge to stay on the path unless the alternative is sufficiently attractive. In order for us to readily pursue an alternate path, we must believe that the alternative is clearly superior to the current state of affairs.

The status quo effect is pervasive in both inconsequential and major decisions. Oftentimes we are held back by what we believe to be the safe option, simply because it is the default. Bearing in mind our natural propensity for the status quo will enable us to recognize the allure of inertia and more effectively overcome it.

You can follow me on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.

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De Brigard, Felipe (2010) 'If you like it, does it matter if it's real?', Philosophical Psychology, 23: 1, 43-57

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1992). "Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty". Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 5 (4): 297–323.

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Book 11974.

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