One of the most fascinating quirks of human psychology is our reluctance to change our course of action. We commit to jobs, relationships, investments and social activities with a limited set of information, and then go about the process of reconciling our expectations with our lived experience, often rationalizing any shortcomings along the way. We endure a painful job because that promotion is just around the corner. We hold onto a sinking stock because we would kick ourselves for selling it right before it turns around.
This tendency to prefer our current state is called the status quo bias. It feels a bit like being on a train that might not be taking you to your destination, but instead of getting off, you decide you’d rather ride it out.
Recently I’ve been trying to reconcile this bias in my own behavior, and come to see that one of the most powerful barriers to change is the cognitive weight of rewriting one’s story. The potential loss of the narrative we have been telling ourselves about who we are, where we’re going, and how we get there.
I’ll be using this article as a way to indulge in some introspection, built on psychology and behavioral economic theory. I started to dig into this topic because I wanted to try to make sense of the motivations and incentives behind our inclination to stay on the train. But in an era defined by rapid change in the way we work, I also see this as an important topic when trying to understand inertia within organizations and individual workers.
What Is The Status Quo Bias
The term for the status quo phenomena was first introduced by economists William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser in their 1988 paper Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. Using surveys and field studies, the authors demonstrated that participants were more likely to select a choice if it was framed as the status quo option.
For example, the participants were given the hypothetical scenario of evaluating job opportunities. In the neutral framing version, participations were given a description of the 4 job offers. In the status quo version, participants were given the same 4 job offer descriptions, but one was framed as their current place of work. In this version, participants were more likely to select their current position, even if the alternatives were more appealing.
To illustrate this cognitive bias moving forward, I like to use the metaphor of riding a train. On this ride, you have a sense of the direction of the train, but you don’t have any absolute certainty on the destination. You always have the choice to keep riding the train or to disembark and find a new one.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it can help to illustrate that once we find ourselves on a path, despite uncertainties and the choice to search for alternatives, there are significant challenges that might reduce our likelihood to change course.
The Cost of Getting Off the Train
Why is it so challenging to deviate from our course? After all, we now know more about ourselves and the world than we did when we set out on this path in the first place. But something important happens when we set off down a path: we incorporate that decision into our life story.
After making the decision to ride the train, you settle into your seat and feel a sense of ease. You also start to tell yourself a story of the potential future you will have and how happy you will be when you get there. That future feels incredibly certain, and contingent on your present path.
But what do you do if the train no longer seems to be traveling towards that destination, stops for maintenance, or if you’re just not enjoying the ride as much as you thought you would? Do you get off?
Once you build an entire narrative around your present actions — the career path you have planned, the payoff from a certain investment — even though there’s no certainty you will reach that destination, the idea of losing that potential future is both paralyzing and devastating all at once. This line of reasoning keeps many of us on the train.
This experience also fits in with the common theoretical explanations of the status quo bias:
- Transition Costs: In economic search theory, our decisions are influenced by both external costs, the monetary investments and opportunity costs, and the internal costs, the mental effort required to undertake the search. In other words, the process of constructing a new narrative around where we are going might create a prohibitive cognitive load.
- Loss Aversion: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverskey’s prospect theory demonstrates asymmetry in how we evaluate different outcomes; specifically we amplify the effects of a loss more than we would a gain of the same value. If we become anchored to our current narrative, then we will potentially feel the pain of losing that story more than the joy of an alternative potential gain.
- Regret Avoidance: After you invest time, attention, and resources into an endeavor, it becomes exceedingly difficult to abandon, even if we discover evidence that it was a poor decision. This behavior goes by other names — Concord fallacy, sunk cost trap, “throwing good money after bad” — which all capture the notion that we might stick to a path in order to avoid admitting failure or in the hopes that things will turn around. The longer we have been living with a certain narrative, the more time and effort we have invested into constructing that imagined future, the harder it becomes to rationalize a change.
Choosing To Ride
There are many reasons why it’s challenging to disrupt the status quo. The train is comfortable and familiar, and even if it isn’t perfect, we can adapt and make the most of the journey we have embarked on. In many cases, there is no reason to get off.
But in other cases, the biggest barrier to change is the fear of losing the future that we imagined for ourselves. This act of detaching ourselves from the plans we constructed and the narrative we created around where we are going is painful. And even if the pain will lead to something wonderful, that risk keeps us from exercising choices and evaluating alternatives.
As I said on the onset of this article, I’m trying to reconcile my own tendency to construct the perfect future and attach myself to a path. But it’s important to remember to be objective when making decisions, and recognize that this plan of action is still ripe with uncertainties. Staying on the train can be a good thing, but it should be an active choice, not just the default we resort to when we’re afraid of change.
When I’m not pondering the fallacies of human behavior, I also write a monthly newsletter called Workable, sharing stories about the changing labor force.