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What is the Status Quo Bias?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The status quo bias is a cognitive bias that leads people to prefer that things remain the same, or that they change as little as possible, if they absolutely must be altered. This cognitive bias plays a role in a number of fields, including economics, political science, sociology, and psychology, and many studies have been conducted on it to look at ways in which it influences human behavior. By being aware of the role that the status quo bias plays in their own lives, people can take steps to reduce the influence of this bias on their decision making.

Several other cognitive biases play into this bias, including the concept of loss aversion. Most people prioritize avoiding the potential for loss over pursuing the potential for gain. In other words, as a general rule, people are conservative because they do not want to lose the gains they have made. As a result, they may view attempts to get ahead as potentially risky. In several studies, when presented with basically identical situations, subjects tend to choose the decision that is least likely to cause a loss.

This bias obviously plays a very important role in decision making, because people will usually make the choice that is least likely to cause a change. The status quo bias can also play a role in daily routines; many people eat the same thing for breakfast day after day, for example, or walk to work in exactly the same pattern, without variation. The inability to be flexible can cause people to become stressed or upset when a situation forces them to make a choice, and it may close their eyes to potential opportunities.

In economics, the status quo bias explains why many people make very conservative financial choices, such as keeping their deposits at one bank even when they are offered a better rate of interest by a bank that is essentially identical in all other respects. The strong desire to keep things the same can cause people to lose out by making conservative decisions. It can also play a role in the world of marketing, as companies have learned to their chagrin when they radically redesign packaging or ingredients of popular products.

While this bias can provide a certain amount of self-protection by encouraging people to make safer choices, it can also become crippling, by preventing someone from selecting a more adventurous option. Like other cognitive biases, it can be so subtle that people aren't aware of it, making it hard to break out of set patterns.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1001631 — On May 26, 2019

I don't know why anybody wouldn't like "Rocking All Over The World", even if it was an older song.

By anon354520 — On Nov 09, 2013

The Republican Party has had the extreme advantage for decades of the status quo bias on their side. The largest one being their efforts to actively maintain and reinforce white privilege and white male dominance of power in the United States. This is why the GOP is actively using state governments to pass voter suppression laws that deny women, blacks, latinos, and college kids the right to vote. Why? Because those groups overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

Another example of their advantage with status quo bias is in relation to their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. The GOP has spent years, nearly 50 pointless congressional votes, shutting down the government, then almost causing a financial catastrophe to repeal the ACA with no success. Now with the rollout in progress they're crying crocodile tears for people whose plans are being canceled by insurance companies (as if insurance companies didn't regularly modify, increase rates on, or cancel premiums). They are actively using the status quo bias to generate mass fear in order to derail progress and deny coverage to hundreds of millions of Americans.

The GOP is generally in favor of maintaining status quo bias unless it involves tax cuts to the wealthy and even in that scenario they are against raising taxes on the wealthy. They are against anti discrimination bill for LGBT workers, they were against the Fair Pay Act for women, they were against repealing DODT, they were against raising the minimum wage, they were against investing in renewable energy infrastructure/R&D, they are against immigration reform, they are against environmental protections, they are against financial reforms for Wall Street, and they are against so many other progressive ideals.

The idea that people would read this article and scream "liberal media!" is so laughable and really highlights how blinded they are by their desire to maintain the status quo because the GOP, frankly, is made up of people who are getting old and dying off.

Sure, this may apply to some aspects of the Democratic party but at least the Democrats are very clear on where they stand which is on a solid platform of equality, broad based prosperity, social justice, and economic efficiency. You can't spell progressive without “progress,” which is the exact opposite of maintaining the status quo.

By sunshine31 — On Nov 15, 2010

Oasis11-I know that President Ronald Reagan experienced a lot of status quo bias.

Many in the Republican Party wanted to make small changes, but President Reagan had bold ideas and put those ideas to action. Although the status quo media bias often referred to him as a dumb Hollywood actor, he was able to become one of the most powerful and admired President’s of all time.

His bold measures helped businesses create 25 million jobs as a result of him cutting taxes from 70% to 24%.

Also during his Presidency, the United States was able to conquer communism in Eastern Europe and most importantly, the Soviet Union.

The economic pressure that President Reagan applied as a result of the arms race is what actually collapsed the Soviet economy. One of the most famous words that President Reagan uttered was, “Mr. Gorbachov, tear down that wall.”

The Berlin Wall came down not too long after President Reagan spoke those words which were an incredible feat. Sometimes having the confidence in you to challenge the status quo can lead to great accomplishments and it President Reagan’s case it sure did.

By oasis11 — On Nov 15, 2010

I think that the biggest offenders of the status quo bias have to be the mainstream media. They cover stories with such a slanted viewpoint that many viewers feel alienated.

For example, if a politician or celebrity does not have a liberal leaning they are often belittled or discredited in some fashion.

This is the reason why many liberal leaning shows have the lowest ratings. Consider, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. When Obama was elected he spoke of the President as, “Giving him tingles up his leg”. This is a commentator that is supposed to be neutral.

This same commentator interviewed Representative Michelle Bachman from Minnesota the night of the congressional elections and he said to an elated Bachman, “You keep saying the same thing over and over again like if you are in a trance.” Bachman then retorted something with regards to his leg tingling as to say that it probably no longer does. It was a disrespectful treatment of sitting congresswomen that should not be tolerated.

By BrickBack — On Nov 15, 2010

Subway-I remember that race, I kind of felt bad for Christine O’Donnell.

I think that politics is infamous for status quo thinking. Each party has their platform and tries to stick to it as much as possible, but sometimes those that challenge their party as well as the status quo bias around them and take chances are often successful.

Joe Machin, a Democrat governor of West Virginia ran for senate and won because of his conservative positions on many issues that challenge the status quo bias of the Democrat party.

One of his most famous ads involved him taking a shotgun and shooting through the cap and trade legislation that so threaten the coal miners of West Virginia.

He was one of the few Democrats that had a successful senate bid in a largely conservative state.

By subway11 — On Nov 15, 2010

Anon91390- That was a great point you made. You seem to know quite a bit about marketing. What I wanted to say is that I agree with the writer that there is a large degree of status quo bias in decision making especially in politics.

For example, with regards to the senatorial race in Delaware of Christine O’Donnell many establishment Republicans did not support her candidacy because she defeated Mike Cassell, who many deemed to be a status quo Republican who served Delaware for many decades.

As a matter of fact, there was some controversy that she would not receive funding from the Republican Party which was made by a member of the Republican senatorial committee.

Later they retracted the statement and said that Christine O’Donnell would receive the $42,000 of funding that she was entitled to.

Many establishment Republicans like Karl Rove were very vocal in their opposition to Christine O’Donnell enough so that it may have been the reason that her candidacy did not receive any traction as she lost by a considerable margin.

By anon91390 — On Jun 21, 2010

'The status quo bias can also play a role in the world of marketing, as companies have learned to their chagrin when they radically redesign packaging or ingredients of popular products.'

Great article. Just wanted to point out the following. I do not believe the changing of ingredients could be used as an example of measurement of status quo bias reliably, as such a change is in essence a real change to the product itself.

The packaging or branding of the same products definitely would qualify as a good measurement but having a negative feeling on changes made to the actual product is a true loss vs gain bias rather than a support for the status quo.

I believe the status quo bias you describe has to do with judging the current idea or thing against possible changes and having a bias towards the status quo or current and not definitive changes, that actually change the thing itself.

Once the thing itself is to be changed, the data of opinion collected could simply be an indication of the preference of the ingredients themselves.

I think it is important to understanding this specific bias distinguished from one that arise from actually taking the changes themselves into consideration.

If it is not, the data could be misinterpreted due to the fact that the person's judgment of the change itself could come to a conclusion that may appear to support the status quo, i.e., "I like x brand the way it is so don't want it changed." (would qualify, because I am showing a bias for the current thing based on not wanting to take a chance on losing the current product as it is), vs. "I don't like corn syrup as much as sugar so don't want them to change their current (sugar) recipe." (would not, as this is a preference based on what is actually being changed and what biases I may have on the ingredients themselves rather then on simply the current vs changed).

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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