Dealing with Status Quo Bias

Heuristics: The systematically biased, unconscious shortcuts people use to make intuitive decisions.

Look at figure 1 below.

Figure 1.

The clear sky gives the illusion that the buildings are closer than those obscured by the haze. Considering that we are in New York City and the objects in question are part of the Pheonix skyline, both photographs represent a distance greater than one can cover in a 10-minute jog.

Would You Trade?

Breaking from the status quo is, for most people, emotionally uncomfortable. Consider the following choices.

A famous experiment involved randomly giving students a gift consisting of either a coffee mug or a candy bar. When offered the chance to trade, few wanted to exchange for the alternative gift. Of course, none of the participants had been told that the coffee mug had had a tiny hole drilled into its base, or that the candy bar had been sitting in direct sunlight for 45 continuous days.

The power of this bias was quantified in a related experiment. Students at an Ivy League university were randomly chosen to receive coffee mugs – the candy having been withheld due to pending litigation over food poisoning. Those with mugs were asked to name the minimum price at which they would sell their mugs. Students at a neighboring community college, who were without mugs, were asked to name the maximum price they would be willing to pay to obtain the mugs. The median price – 6 months in jail and a $10,000 fine – was more than twice the median offer price, $1.59, plus shipping and handling. Clearly, ownership of the mugs increased their perceived value.

This bias may help explain why people who believe they can talk to wild animals are often eaten by them. Likewise, it might be a contributing factor explaining why companies choose to promote troublesome employees instead of simply shoving them off the nearest bridge.

Social Norms

Social norms tend to reinforce one’s preference for the status quo. For example, courts view a sin of commission (lying about your credentials to get the lead astrophysicist position at NASA) as more serious than a sin of omission (saying that the dog ate your credentials and still getting the job at NASA).

Another example: Government decision makers are often reluctant to adopt tax reform if there are “losers” as well as “gainers.” As most elected officials are themselves seen as losers, there is rarely an instance when gainers outnumber them, making tax reform nigh impossible.

For many organizations, lack of information, uncertainty, and a tendency to treat that gaping hole in the Titanic’s hull by calling a plumber, promote holding to the status quo. In the absence of an unequivocal case-changing course, why face the unpleasant prospect of change? Thus, many organizations continue to support under-performing executives due to either: a)  a lack of solid evidence that they’ve failed, or b) witnesses. Killing a capo di tutti capi may be a good business decision, but it is generally uncomfortable for the person involved.

Going Forward

We’ve explored some of the causes of status quo bias, now let us consider possible remedies. Here are some tips for countering status quo bias that can be immediately implemented:

  1. When you hear comments like “let’s wait and see” or “let’s meet next month to see how the project is going,” question whether you’re hearing status quo bias, or whether the conference leader has a job interview coming up.
  2. Think about what your objectives are, and whether they are best served by letting someone else fail for a change.
  3. Identify who might be disadvantaged by changing the status quo, and look for ways to eliminate them.
  4. Ask yourself whether you would choose the status quo alternative – a cheaper product made in Jaipur by preschoolers – if, in fact, you knew you could get away with it.
  5. Avoid overestimating the difficulty of switching from the status quo, unless it cuts into your lunch hour.
  6. Actively manage migration away from the status quo—communicate dissatisfaction with the status quo by holding your breath until you are blue in the face.
  7. Note that change becomes the status quo over time – unless it’s change for a $10 bill, in which case it becomes 2 fives, a fin and 5 singles, a roll of quarters, or the price of a gallon of regular gas.
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