Have You Ever?

Ever heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? As you probably well know, that saying refers to the idea that if things are fine the way they currently are, you’re better off not changing anything. For example, let’s say that there’s an ongoing debate about how a pest control company is planning to release a potentially dangerous foreign species into a mountain lake whose ecosystem is perfectly balanced at the present. If you were a person living by the code of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” then you would object to the pest control company’s plan – since the lake is doing fine the way it is, why disturb it? That line of reasoning probably sounds quite logical to you. 

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. What if this mountain lake has been the dumping site of toxic chemicals from many manufacturing plants for years, and now a wildlife foundation is planning to clean the toxins from the lake and make it habitable once again for plants and animals? Strangely enough, most people would also object to the wildlife foundation’s proposition, still thinking that the lake should be kept just the way it is. 

Reason

Because of their emotional biases, people have a hard time seeing objective flaws in the present. In other words, people frequently think that the present “ain’t broke” and thus see no reason to change anything. 

Thus, on first instinct, people aren’t really morally motivated when they object to the introduction of dangerous species to a pristine lake, just like they aren’t maliciously motivated when they object to the detoxification of a polluted lake – all they want is to keep things the way they are. It just so happens that in the first case, we fortunately started with a pristine lake, and our biased instincts to keep things the same happened to lead us to an eco-friendly decision. 

Status Quo Bias

The status quo bias is an emotion-based bias that makes people feel that perpetuating the present state of things is preferable over any change. Even if the change would be positive from an objective perspective, humans are programmed to view any deviation from the current reality as a negative loss. 

How It Works

The status quo bias is closely related to another psychological phenomenon known as loss aversion. The negative emotional impact that a loss-averse person experiences when losing a certain amount of money will be far bigger than the positive emotional impact they experience when gaining that same amount of money. In other words, people are more strongly affected by loss than they are by an equal amount of gain. When loss-averse people make choices, they prefer inaction over action because they’d rather make no money than lose any money. 

The status quo bias is essentially a more general version of the loss aversion effect that applies to people’s decision-making in all situations, not just money matters.

Why Care?

Status quo bias can be a dangerous trap to fall into, especially when it comes to socio-political matters. Many people who haven’t done their research on political candidates or are only half-heartedly following public debates will be predisposed to dislike new candidates and will vote for the candidate who is currently in office and running for re-election, regardless of how poorly that current leader has performed. The key takeaway from this? Do your own research, keep yourself politically educated, and form opinions on politicians based upon facts instead of just assuming that keeping things the same is the safer choice compared to change. 

Furthermore, you probably have known an older person at some point who frequently complains about how “the modern world just can’t compare to the good old days.” That nostalgic, overly idealistic view of the past has often been used as an argument against progressive movements. When people assert that “the new generation is just too sensitive” and that “everything was fine back in the old days” when there was no concept of political correctness, no recognition of any sexual orientation except heterosexual, and scarce medical attention for mental illness, they imply that there’s no need for the corrections we’ve made to how we speak to and treat marginalized groups. The status quo bias can make people obvlious to the flaws of the past as well as the present and prevent them from potentially improving society. Though it’s certainly true that not all change is objectively good change, it is equally dangerous to believe that the way things were is the way they should always be. 

Lastly, the status quo bias is also a huge influence in economic decision-making. Let’s say that you inherit a bunch of stocks and other monetary assets from a distant relative. Some of these stocks may be shares of companies that are no longer doing so well. The rational thing to do would be to sell those stocks that will probably only drop in value in the future and buy new stocks from a different company. However, the status quo bias will likely lead you to keep all those old stocks even though you’re probably going to lose money with them.

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. Burmeister, Katrin, and Christian Schade. “Are Entrepreneurs’ Decisions More Biased? An Experimental Investigation of the Susceptibility to Status Quo Bias.” Journal of Business Venturing, vol. 22, no. 3, May 2007, pp. 340–62. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.jbusvent.2006.04.002.
    2. Cherry, Kendra. “How the Status Quo Bias Influences the Decisions You Make.” Verywell Mind, https://www.verywellmind.com/status-quo-bias-psychological-definition-4065385. Accessed 27 Aug. 2019.
    3. Crandall, Christian S., et al. “Status Quo Framing Increases Support for Torture.” Social Influence, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 1–10. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/15534510802124397.
    4. Samuelson, William, and Richard Zeckhauser. “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 1988, pp. 7–59. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/BF00055564.

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. Name one real-life example of status quo bias that you or someone you know has experienced.
    2. What is the most dangerous consequence of the status quo bias that you can think of?
    3. In what situations might status quo bias be a positive force in society?

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