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The status quo bias and you

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.


In 1988 researchers William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser coined the term 'status quo bias'. A series of decision-making experiments showed them that people tend to default to the status quo even if it wasn't the best option for them.

How does the status quo bias affect us? What are the problems with it? And what can we do about it?

We've all seen this before: when a new idea, policy or process is suggested it's put through the wringer. Any perceived (or real) disadvantages are enough to stop the change dead in its tracks. Meanwhile, the disadvantages of the current state are accepted as is.

You'll be familiar with these examples:

  • The death of people killed in autonomous vehicles is worldwide frontpage news. But 1.3 million people a year die from human drivers.

  • In NZ we had a referendum on cannabis legalisation but haven't relooked at alcohol / tobacco despite the massive social harm both do.

  • The justice system has remained largely unchanged despite statistical evidence highlighting how ineffectual it is (see NZ recidivism rates).

The status quo bias can show up in small ways. You order your 'go-to' at your favourite restaurant because you know you're going to love it and it's the safe choice.

But you're missing out on a different dish which is potentially better.

Then again, you avoid the risk of being disappointed by a new choice, if it's not better than your go-to.

Quite the dilemma!

It's also worth remembering that we're diverse. The status quo is different for different people. That may be one reason why you experience intergenerational tension in the workplace. Each generation has a different status quo and therefore different expectations and success metrics at work.

If there weren't benefits to the status quo bias then it wouldn't be an evolutionary predisposition. It helps us stay alive because it prevents us from taking too many risks. It makes us cautious. It helps us maintain a degree of stability. Appropriate amounts of these things are essential.

But, like all of our biases, in many situations we need to stop and reflect on if it's helping us or not.

This past year and a half has been a massive global shattering of the status quo.

Covid transformed the status quo

Travel to work, work, travel back home. This was the status quo for the majority of us pre-Covid-19.

Of course people worked remotely before Covid-19. But the status quo for most 'office based' organisations involved working in-person at a shared location.

Nothing like a global pandemic and government lockdowns to force us to examine how we're doing things. Of course as someone who lived through Covid-19 in New Zealand, our experience was much different than the rest of the world.

But we've still seen the status quo tested.

For those of us in the world of organisational learning & development - there's been a noticeable shift to virtual workshops and meetings. We have clients who moved in-person programmes to virtual programmes, because of Covid-19 restrictions. Despite the restrictions being lifted, they haven't moved them back.

As vaccines are distributed and life returns to normal for much of the world - the status quo is being tested again. Some organisations which shifted to enable work from home are now requesting their workers return to the office.

According to one 2020 poll by Survey Analytics 42% of US workers and 34% of UK workers love working from home (WFH) and want to continue to do so.

Workers who have adapted and adjusted their lives and work over the past year to enable WFH have experienced its benefits, and are fighting back. They have a new status quo.

And people have started asking questions about the old status quo:

  • Why am I spending my valuable time commuting to and from work?

  • Should I be driving and adding to pollution in order to do work I can do from my house?

  • Why is it normal to schedule my life around traditional 9am-5pm 'working hours' instead of scheduling my working hours around my life?

  • Am I more effective in the office?

  • Is the team better when we're co-located?

The answer "because we've always done it this way" isn't cutting it anymore. It did for so long, because of how quickly the current state translates to the default option.

Default settings and the status quo bias

Default settings have a powerful effect on people. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explore default options and choice architecture in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

All these forces imply that if, for a given choice, there is a default option - an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing - then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them...Defaults are ubiquitous and powerful.

Not opting to change default settings is why there is an increase in organ donation in countries where organ donation is the default. It's the reason Kiwis are automatically opted-in to Kiwisaver.

Did you know that most people don't bother to change the default factory settings on their phones?

People will take the path of least resistance. If you want people to do the right thing, make that the default (and easier) option. This is why, in NZ, Inland Revenue does your tax calculations for you - it raises tax compliance.

And when the default setting isn't the best option, that has real consequences as well. Think your data and big tech:

Both Apple and Google say they take privacy seriously and offer controls for data trackers in their respective browsers, Safari and Chrome. The difference is that Safari offers privacy protections by default while Chrome requires people to change their settings. Less than 10 percent of Safari users but more than 80 percent of Chrome users are tracked by third parties, according to statistics from Gibson Research. - Alfred Ng

Is the status quo / default helping you do the right thing? Or does the best option require more effort?

What triggers the status quo bias?

There are many psychological reasons for the status quo bias.

It's a preference towards 'normal.' We want to fit in. We like to conform. So we figure out what 'normal' looks like - and often we work to that.

In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein state:

Social influences come in two basic categories. The first involves information. If many people do something or think something, their actions and their thoughts convey information about what might be best for you to do or think. The second involves peer pressure. If you care about what other people think about you..., then you might go along with the crowd to avoid their wrath or curry their favor.

Cynthia Vinney adds more in this article:

  • We get pot-committed to the current state - we've invested so much, we tell ourselves we can't change now.

  • The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. The mere exposure to something creates a preference to that versus something unknown and different.

  • We’re loss averse. The potential for loss weighs on us much more than the potential for gain.

  • Inconsistency sparks cognitive dissonance. It's an uncomfortable feeling and we try to minimise it. Even considering alternatives to the status quo can cause cognitive dissonance.

What's the problem with the status quo?

Because we're predisposed to stick with the status quo, we may:

  • ignore the disadvantages of the default or status quo

  • miss out on opportunities that are beneficial to us

  • stop ourselves from trying new things

  • hinder innovation and creative problem solving.

Actions to fight our preference for the status quo

Know thy enemy. Like many things we’re trying to fix, awareness of the problem is the first step. You know when you're faced with new opportunities you'll likely default to the status quo. So be more mindful of this and challenge yourself to challenge the status quo.

Highlight disadvantages of the status quo. Want to influence someone (including yourself) to do something new? First frame the status quo as a loss. This will trigger people's loss aversion impulses. Highlight the problems of sticking with the status quo. Then, sell your change idea. After all, it's a solution to the problem you've all just agreed on.

Look for this next time you hear a politician rolling out something new.

Remove the status quo altogether. It's called the vanishing options test. It's what Covid-19 did with working in the office. Ask people what they'd do if the status quo was removed as an option altogether.

Avoid options paralysis. Studies showed the more options someone is given the more likely they'll choose to stick with the default. Or they'll avoid the decision altogether, thus passively choosing the default.

Create a plan for change. If we're motivated to do something, having a specific action plan increases our chances of actually doing it. If you want people to change the status quo, give them some tangible steps as to what that looks like.

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Likely there will be positives of the status quo - it got that way for a reason. That doesn't mean improvements can't be made. Recognise what's working and maintain that the best you can.



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