The Status Quo Bias

First Published: March 2012 in Chicago Lawyer Magazine

My last column on the anchoring and adjustment bias was the first column in this series on cognitive biases — the quicksand of our brains where we think we are thinking when we are actually sinking deeper into the historical patterns that comfort us with their predictability.

This column explores another of our intellectual leanings — the status quo bias — that lulls us into thinking we are engaged in thought when we are, in reality, not thinking at all.

The status quo bias is that sharp tug we feel toward what we already know when we are faced with the possibility of change. It is our tendency to believe that whatever we know — even if it is unpleasant — has to be better and more appropriate than what we don’t know. This bias is the reason why we elect incumbents that we don’t really like over newcomers that we think we may like and why “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” has become a frequent voting strategy for many.

The status quo bias is the pull we feel toward what already exists (even if we don’t like it or we disagree with it) when we are confronted with the possibility of choosing between two options.

Let’s take the issue of organ donation as a case in point. In Germany and Austria, an equally overwhelming majority of people in both countries support the idea of donating their organs. Yet, only 12 percent of Germans are organ donors because they have to opt-in (do something) to become organ donors in comparison to 99 percent of Austrians who are organ donors because they have to opt-out (do nothing) to stop being organ donors.

Even when we don’t actively choose or even agree with the default, we will default to the default instead of actively choosing something else.

This bias can impact diversity and inclusion efforts at both the organizational as well as the individual level.

I recently saw this bias manifest itself in a large corporation. The leaders of two different business units introduced the company’s inclusion initiatives to their businesses in two completely different ways.

One leader announced to the people in his business unit that the company was “exploring the idea of implementing an inclusion initiative” and he asked for “everyone’s input on the idea and the process.” The responses were generally in favor of implementing the initiative, but a significant percentage of the workforce complained that there were too many initiatives in the company, that the workload was too much to think about one more thing, and that inclusiveness should not be a focus until the economy strengthened. When the responses were analyzed collectively, it became clear that the employees were responding to a “should we do this” question, which was fundamentally a “should we keep doing what we are doing or should we do something different” question.

The other leader’s communication announced that “the company was implementing an inclusion initiative” and he asked for “input on how individuals can contribute to the initiative’s success.” The overwhelming majority of the responses in this business unit focused on concrete ideas for individual contributions with very few responses that challenged the actual implementation itself. When the responses in this business unit were analyzed collectively, it became clear that the employees were responding to a “how should we do this” question, which bypassed the option of “should we do this.”

In the first example, the absence of the initiative was the status quo and the implementation was a potential change. In the second example, the initiative’s implementation was assumed, thereby making the implementation the status quo. These two leaders had not intended to evoke two completely different sets of responses, yet, they did because one communication activated the status quo bias while the other deactivated it.

If we lean toward more of the same, it is difficult to achieve something different. It is a circular, albeit comforting, logic — we do it this way because that’s how we have always done it.

The status quo bias leads us to use this logic to keep outdated recruiting and hiring practices in place and to evaluate employees from the process mindset of the 20th century instead of the impact mindset of the 21st century. Most importantly, this bias leads us to believe that the way it has always been was correct because it has always been that way.

Creating a more inclusive work environment is about change and the possibility of change triggers the status quo bias in those who are being asked to change.

One way to deactivate this instinct is to subtly communicate the change you want to create as the new status quo. Instead of “should we do this,” try “when we do this, how should we deal with …”

In order to really think, sometimes we have to bypass the way we really think.

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Arin N. Reeves

a fierce advocate for justice, a geeky catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity & a firm believer that most rules were meant to be broken