Prejudice to the status quo, when you don't want to change

Who I am
Louise Hay

Author and references

An old proverb says that a known evil is better than an unknown good. Popular wisdom highlights our tendency to prefer things to remain as they are, unless, of course, they are terrible. In fact, even in adverse situations, far from ideal but in which we have found a certain balance, we tend to prefer continuity to change, a known past to an uncertain future. Sometimes it is almost as if we prefer the certainty of banality to the dangers that uncertainty implies.

This is why we stick to old habits and defend traditions that, rationally, are inexplicable. This is also why we get stuck in toxic relationships and environments. And it is why it is so difficult to change a social system, a cultural model or an ingrained way of doing things. This tendency to cling to the known has a name: status quo bias.

What exactly is the bias of the status quo?

The bias of the status quo is an irrational preference for the current situation. In practice, once a baseline is established or recognized, it becomes a point of reference and any change is perceived as a loss or a threat, even if a positive one.

Curiously, the expression derives from the Latin phrase statu quo ante bellum (the state of things before the war) which was used in peace treaties. The phrase implied the withdrawal of troops from the battlefield and the return to the state before the war, taking up the old way of doing and order that reigned before the chaos.

Today, the prejudice of the status quo permeates many areas of our life. An example of the status quo bias is when we buy a new cell phone. Interestingly, the more options we have, the more likely we are to leave the default options that the manufacturer has set, just changing the display wallpaper, ringtone, and two or three other functions. This means that inertia has enormous power over our decisions and behaviors, from the most important to the most trivial.

Tell me where you start from and I'll tell you where you will arrive

The bias of the status quo can be very paralyzing, severely limiting our options and prospects for the future. In practice, the starting point we establish determines where we will arrive, simply because we will not dare to go further or we will not even consider it.

This is demonstrated by a regulation applied in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both states (inadvertently) conducted a large-scale experiment on the bias of the status quo. They offered citizens the choice between two types of auto insurance: a cheaper policy that limited the right to sue and a more expensive one that set no limits on claims. New Jersey drivers were offered the cheapest policy by default, although they could choose a more expensive one, while Pennsylvania drivers were always offered the more expensive option by default, although they could also choose the other alternative.

In 1990, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the psychological effect of this baseline and found that only 23% of New Jersey drivers chose the most expensive policy that included the right to sue. However, the number rose to 53% among Pennsylvania drivers.

In practice, the default option we start with influences our decisions, even if we are aware that we can change. We just don't do it out of inertia, we prefer to stay anchored to the baseline that we already know or that others have prepared for us. This, of course, limits our options and leads us to uncomfortable scenarios that don't fit our real needs.

The 3 psychological pillars that support the bias of the status quo

1. Loss aversion

When it comes to making a change, we all evaluate potential losses and compare them to gains. The problem is that we are not very rational in the comparison because we value losses much more than gains. This is confirmed by an experiment conducted by researchers from Stanford University and the University of British Columbia.

Let's say you are given the option to place a bet. If you flip a coin and it comes up heads, you win X euros and if it comes out tails you lose 100 euros. How much does X have to be to be willing to bet? Most of the participants replied about 200 euros. This means that only the prospect of earning 200 euros compensates for the loss of 100. We have a strong desire to keep what belongs to us and we refuse to incur losses, unless the gains can double them. This loss aversion binds us to sub-optimal situations and prevents us from taking advantage of new opportunities.

2. Fear of uncertainty

The status quo is something we are familiar with. It is that comfort zone in which we move with relative comfort or with knowledge of the facts. We have some control over the circumstances because we can accurately anticipate what will happen. This gives us a certain sense of security that we are not willing to give up so easily.

However, changing the status quo often means embracing uncertainty. When we dare to leave the known, we do not know for sure what awaits us or what will happen, and this generates anxiety and fear. That is why we prefer to stay in that familiar zone, even though we are aware that we could do better or improve the circumstances. The fear of uncertainty is simply too great and paralyzing.

3. Resistance to change

Mere exposure to situations makes us get used to them. That is why, in our minds, existing states are generally better than new ones. We have accumulated some experience and we know how to react, so we just have to activate the predefined response templates that have already worked.

Change implies an alteration of that system and means having to look for alternative answers whose effectiveness we have not verified. This takes more effort. That's why we resist. Added to this is that we tend to perceive existing situations as more true and authentic, so as to give them greater weight than hypothetical situations that we have not yet experienced.

The balance between the status quo and the inevitable change

A study carried out by neuroscientists at University College London examined the neural pathways involved in the bias of the status quo and found that the more difficult the decision we face, the more likely we are to not act and let others or circumstances. do it for us.

In practice, we suffer from analysis paralysis. The mere prospect of having to weigh many options with their pros and cons blocks us. That is why we have chosen the simplest way: to maintain the status quo, to stick to the known. This means always buying the same brand, always voting for the same party, following the same religion, always staying in the same circle of friends, in the same city for life, always doing the same job ...

Finally, these neuroscientists also found that status quo bias is not usually the best solution as it leads to more mistakes in decision making. In other words, thinking that what we know is always better is a big mistake. Staying within the limits of the known may be convenient in some cases, but clinging to it leads to denying the only truth inherent in life: change. If our needs, aspirations, expectations and ways of seeing life change over time, it is illogical to cling to the status quo.

When we deny change and remain anchored to what is familiar to us, we run the risk of clinging to patterns of behavior that can quickly become anachronistic and maladaptive. That is why we need to constantly re-evaluate our decisions and beliefs, asking ourselves if they still hold true under current circumstances. We need to find a balance between the security of the status quo and the possibilities for change. We must learn to use the past as a stepping stone and not as a sofa, as Harold MacMillan said.

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