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The Status Quo Bias Has Deep Roots -- 3 ways to uproot your own thinking

Say you are introduced to a tech company who has perfected an experience machine. Rather than living the life you live now, you can connect to this machine and experience anything you wish. In reality, you will be floating in a tank, but your brain and body will believe the experiences are real. The technology is safe and 100% effective, and your decision to connect would be permanent.


Would you choose to connect to this experience machine or continue living the life you have now?


Make a choice, maybe even write it down, before moving on.


Now…let’s do a different thought experiment.



Let’s say you wake up one day in a bright white room. An attendant in a white coat with a clipboard tells you the year is 2622. You have been in an experience machine for the past 15 years. Everything you hold in your memory was generated in this experience machine. Every five years, an attendant checks in with you to ensure you are satisfied and to allow you to choose your experiences for the next 5 years. You have a choice. 


You can either choose to reconnect to the machine, and all knowledge of this discussion will be eliminated from your memory…or you can choose your next 5 years’ experiences and reconnect.


Which is it? Do you choose to reconnect or to enter reality?


Was the decision as easy this time? Did you change your mind?


When asked if they would like to start using the experience machine, people overwhelmingly and quickly say no.


But, in one experiment, when offered a version of the second thought experiment, 59% of the respondents said they would reconnect to the experience machine.


Why the difference? The only thing that changed was whether the status quo was “connected” or “not connected”. 


If you stick with me, I’ll give you 3 things you can do to help yourself (and you’re team) mitigate this bias.


In repeated studies, psychologists find human decision makers have a tendency to prefer options that cause no change in the state of the world or require no action on their part.

This isn’t surprising to anyone here….people resist change…and they resist change more if making the change requires action.


Yet, most of us have iPhones, use the internet, move away from home, and make new relationships that improve our lives. We can all list several instances in our own lives where change has been positive…yet, we still resist it.


Why is this? Why do humans resist change?


First, there are some very pragmatic reasons.


Personally, I’d like to convert my house to be primarily powered by solar energy. But, to make a smart decision, I have to do some research. I have to find out which are the reputable companies in my area, which system might work best for my needs, and what tax incentives might be available. 


These are ACTION COSTS. Humans want to avoid these…we’d rather save our energy for something else.


Even if the perfect solution were handed to me, installing the system wouldn’t be cheap. While I would save money in the long run, I have to pay a large amount up front. 


These are TRANSACTION COSTS. Making a change often requires us to expend resources.


Smart, rational, intelligent humans may purposefully and thoughtfully decide these costs are too high.


That sort of effortful decision making isn’t status quo bias. That is simply making a choice that the status quo is (for now) better than an alternative. 


But, what is more insidious are the factors leading us to continue the status quo by default rather than conscious choice.


One of my favorite pizzerias is in Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia--Pizzeria Paradisio. I’ve been there dozens of times…but I’ve only had one pizza there. They have about 20 signature pizzas on their menu, and every time I have been with someone who ordered a different pizza, they've enjoyed it.


But, I always order the Napolitana, on a wheat crust, add Italian sausage, and add arugula after it is out of the oven.


I always look at the menu, and I consider other pizzas, but it is always this one.


Why?


Because I know I like the Napolitana, and I am afraid that if I order another pizza, I won’t like that pizza as much, and I will regret not ordering the Napolitana. I just thought I was strange, until I started researching the cognitive biases at work in our brains.


Here’s one reason we default to the status quo: Prospect Theory. 


Among its principles, Prospect Theory says losses hurt more than the same size gain makes us feel good.


When I am considering which pizza to order, I am worried about losing…I may not like the new pizza I am considering. 


Since losses loom larger than gains, the new pizza would have to be not just as good as, but be much better than my Napolitana Status Quo pizza….so, I stick with what I know, even though I recognize there may be a pizza out there I love more. The same thing happens when we consider a new job, a new apartment, a new routine, or a new way of doing business. 


The status quo brings certainty. Certainty means lower anticipated regret. If I keep doing what I have always done, I believe I am less likely to regret the outcome.


So, that is one reason…we want to avoid regret.


Another common reason we stick with the status quo is due to preference uncertainty.  In other words, we don’t know what we want.


I see this in the strategy sessions I lead with businesses and non-profits. In a 2-hour session, we may spend 1+45 just defining what the goal of the organization is--even for teams that have been working together for months or years.



When we are trying to make a decision, we would like to be able to justify that decision –even to ourselves. This justification works best when we can say, “I chose option B because it gives me the best chance to accomplish Y.”


Too often, we don’t know what our goal is. So, it becomes impossible to explain why we chose to do new thing B, and as a result, we just stick with tried-and-true A.


Finally, the third reason the status quo is favored is due to anticipated blame.


On April 23, 1985, the Coca-Cola company introduced “New” Coke. This improved flavor was preferred in taste tests and was set to stop the 15-year long trend of cola drinks losing popularity and market share.


It was a bold move and rejection of status quo coke. And it was an utter failure. The Coke CEO was called by some, “the dumbest businessman in America.”


We tend to put more blame on a leader who deviates from the status quo and fails than we do on a leader who simply keeps doing the same thing over and over until it fails on its own.


The CEO who turned away from status-quo-Coke is a doofus.


The CEO who loses market share to other drinks is simply a victim of changing public preferences. Even though we don’t say it, we know this intrinsically, so the status quo wins out more often than not.

T

o be fair, the status quo isn’t all bad. In many cases, the status quo is the status quo because it works. We prefer the status quo over climate change. Many parts of America are trying to return to the status quo ante---life before the Coronavirus.


Since the pandemic, there have been many people who started doing things differently.


At #HumanIntelligence, we converted all of our training, so we could conduct it live via Zoom. Restaurants changed their business models to become take-out only. Office workers found out they could be just as productive at home as they were in the office.


But…here is the secret. We only started doing work in these new ways because the status quo was no longer an option. 


Another way of saying this is…the decision to change became easier. Neurologists found certain areas of the brain involved in impulse control activate when faced with difficult, but not easy decisions. I’ll admit my restaurant ordering habits uncomfortably resemble characteristics of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 


The more difficult a decision is, the more likely it is that this part of our brain activates, and we are more likely to choose the status quo over change.


When the pandemic eliminated the option of remaining in the status quo, the decision to change became easier.


But..this is important: The ability to make positive change is within us as humans, and we don’t have to wait for a pandemic to get started.


Here are 3 ways you can start making sure you can make yourself and your team less susceptible to status quo bias:


1. Reduce regret by making a smaller (easier) decision.  What is the smallest action you can take to get yourself closer to making a decision. If I am thinking about whether to install solar panels on my house, maybe I can invite a company to give me an estimate. I’m not committing to the decision to buy, but I am getting the information I need to make a decision. Once I get started on a path, it is much easier to keep moving.


2. Fight against preference uncertainty….get clarity on what you want to do. Don’t ask what kind of job you need to get, ask what you want to do in your life. Don’t make a business deal just because it is available…get clarity about your priorities and make deals that make sense.


Answer this question to get started…Imagine in 5 years someone is about to call you onstage to give you a prestigious award. In their introduction of you, they say, “She really proved the power of _____ over _____.” How would you want them to complete this sentence? Does it give you some clues about what you prefer?


3. Finally, build confidence in your decision-making capabilities to make decisions easier. Do a decision debrief. What was the last big decision you had to make…maybe buying a house…maybe selling a house…maybe getting a new job…maybe leaving a job…maybe ending a relationship…maybe starting one. 


What was the biggest factor in your decision calculus? What were the pros and cons? How do those hold up now? Would you make the same decision all over again, or would you change something?


If you would change something, what did you not consider?


By doing this sort of decision debrief, we give ourselves a chance to learn from our past experiences to be better at making decisions about our future ones.


While I may not be able to put you into an experience machine, you can put yourself in one to see whether the old status quo was better or worse than what you decided to do.


You, or your boss, may choose the status quo over an innovative new idea. Understanding and mitigating the status quo bias helps you make sure you are making a choice to do what you have always done rather than just stumbling down an easy, well-worn path.


Dan Manning is the Lead Instructor for #HumanIntelligence, an online and in-person live training program designed to improve critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity skills in tech-savvy teams.

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