‘Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein
There’s a restaurant in town that I love going to and whenever I do I order the ribs. Now there are any number of other seemingly delectable items on the menu, sometimes I’ve even been tempted to try something new, but invariably I end up with that full rack smothered in barbecue sauce.
Am I just not adventurous when it comes to what I eat?
Do I just love ribs that much?
You see the reason I never change my order is the same reason I haven’t switched broadband provider or energy supplier in years, and it’s probably the reason I haven’t changed jobs no matter how aggravated I’ve felt over the years. I’ve become comfortable with the way things are, content with the status quo.
Change is scary
Change can be scary whether it’s changing your hairstyle, leaving a dead-end job or ending an unsatisfying relationship. The thought of the pain to come if you made the change is so alarming that you often opt to remain exactly where you are.
But that isn’t by accident.
Because behind the scenes your mind works to keep you wanting to stay exactly where you are. In psychology it’s referred to as the Status Quo bias and it’s why making a change, even when it could be something potentially great, is seen as something negative. Your brain processes it as a loss and decides it’s much too big a risk to take.
Your thinking is biased
Your brain is constantly receiving and processing information. It’s powerful but has its limitations, and as it tries to simplify the information being received, systematic errors called cognitive biases are introduced. These biases affect how you process and interpret the information being received, causing you to make judgments and decisions based on self-interest, incomplete information and emotion.
Beware the status quo
The Status Quo bias compels you to make decisions that keep things as they are. You resist change unless the perceived benefits are overwhelmingly more compelling than the perceived risks. That can sound like a good thing, after all, isn’t it okay to want to make the right decision?
The problem comes when you favour an option simply because you’re more familiar with it not because it’s actually better for you. You focus more on what you could lose rather than how you could benefit. As Kahneman and Tversky (1979) put it, ‘losses loom larger than gains’ and the research suggests that losses are perceived as twice as harmful as the beneficial impact of any gains.
The Status Quo bias tries to ensure that you don’t make a choice that will result in any negative consequences thereby minimising the risk associated with the change. However, in not making a decision to do something different you may be missing out on opportunities and potential benefits. Inaction isn’t necessarily the safest or most favourable option to take.
The Status Quo bias in action
Take me and that restaurant. I love the ribs it’s true but what’s really going on is that instead of trying something new and running the risk that I won’t like it, I stick with what I know is pretty much guaranteed to be good. I minimise the risk of losing out in the dinner stakes but equally I miss out on sampling another fantastic dish, maybe even discovering a new favourite.
You can apply the lens to any situation where you fail to take a step forward because you think it’s the higher risk option. That could be true but the Status Quo bias has you deciding that it is even when you haven’t really examined the other options objectively.
Sticking with what you know isn’t all bad
Of course, like other cognitive biases, the status quo bias exists for a reason and has its benefits. It prevents you from taking unreasonable risks and acts as protection against rash decisions. The downside comes when avoiding risk leads to indecision or making decisions that prove less beneficial.
How to guard against it
Knowing that you have the bias (we all do) is the first step to counteracting it and when you feel yourself resisting a change here are some useful questions to ask:
‘ Am I choosing to continue this way because it is what I’ve always done?’
‘Is there a different perhaps better way?’
‘What are the negative consequences if I do nothing?’
‘Is what I’m doing helping or hindering my progress?’
‘Are the perceived risks really as bad as I think they are? ‘
‘Am I losing out on other great opportunities because I’m holding on to this?’
‘What advice would I give to a good friend in the same situation?’
The way forward: always challenge what you think
By seeking out information that contradicts your opinions you have a better chance of assessing both the pros and cons in a situation. As you continue to challenge what you think is the truth, you will get better at making more objective decisions. Yes, you may decide to stick with the status quo but it will be for well-thought-out reasons not just because your bias is in action. And who knows, maybe then, making that change won’t be so scary.
Now over to you.
Has this bias held you back when trying to make changes in your life?
How did you move past it?
Let me know in the comments.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.