Published here October 2003.

Abstract | Introduction | Reason 1 | Status Quo Bias
Sunk Cost Bias | Supporting Evidence Bias | Framing Bias
Estimating and Forecasting Biases | Garbage In, Garbage Out  | PART II

Status Quo Bias

Research shows that decision makers are often biased toward alternatives that perpetuate the status quo. Psychologists call this a "comfort zone" bias based on research suggesting that breaking from the status quo is, for most people, emotionally uncomfortable. It requires increased responsibility and opening oneself up to criticism. For example, if you introduce a lower-cost/lower-quality version of an existing product to your product line, you may have to confront the trade off between increased profits and the risk of damaging your brand image. Sticking to the status quo is easier because it creates less internal tension.

There are often good reasons, of course, for leaving things unchanged. But, studies show that people assign too much value to the status quo. In one experiment, for example, each participant in a group of students was randomly given a gift consisting of either a coffee cup or a candy bar. When offered the chance to trade with each other, few wanted to exchange for the alternative gift. Apparently, "owning" what they had been given made it appear more valuable.

Institutional norms tend to reinforce preference for the status quo. For example, courts (and many organizations) view a sin of commission (doing something wrong) as more serious than a sin of omission (failing to prevent a wrong). As another example, government decision makers are often reluctant to adopt an efficiency-enhancing reform if there are "losers" as well as "gainers." Any change is seen as "unfair." The burden of proof is on the side of changing the status quo. Those who want to keep the status quo do not need arguments.

Lack of complete information, uncertainty, and too many alternatives promote holding to the status quo. For example, many organizations continue to support failing projects due to lack of solid evidence that they've failed. Killing a project may be a good business decision, but it is often uncomfortable for the people involved. Many companies question why so many of their projects fail, but a better question may be, "Why don't they fail sooner?"

The best advice for countering the bias toward the status quo is to consider carefully whether status quo is the best choice or only the most comfortable one:

  • 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.
  • Think about what your objectives are and whether they are best served by the status quo or by a change.
  • Ask yourself whether you would choose the status quo alternative if, in fact, it were not the status quo.
  • Avoid overestimating the effort involved in switching from the status quo.
  • Note that a change becomes the status quo over time. Evaluate alternatives in terms of the future as well as the present.
Reason 1: Errors and Bias in Judgment   Reason 1: Errors and Bias in Judgment

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