Economist Tyler Cowen likes to talk about “status quo bias” as perhaps the biggest bias problem humans have. The term refers to a predisposition toward keeping things the way they are or sticking with previously made decisions.
Managers often complain of status quo bias, even without knowing the phrase. “But this is the way we’ve always done it,” is a common plea issued by employees fighting a push for organizational change. It’s such a predictable offer of resistance that some managers take it as affirmation – an indication that they’re moving in the right decision.
Parents know status quo bias from children who issue culinary decrees such as, “I don’t like broccoli.” One experience with something they didn’t like the taste of carrying the name salad means they refuse to eat anything called broccoli, giving birth to a rule that can last a lifetime. Perhaps you can recall being surprised to discover in your twenties or thirties that you actually did like a food you’d considered off limits.
It is interesting to see status quo bias described as an irrational preference for the current state of affairs. No doubt, preferring what is – even when something new could be demonstrated to be superior –
These programmed responses to incoming stimuli curb our ability to effectively analyze circumstances and to respond in ways that create positive outcomes. And, over time, we can assume the instinct will grow. The kid who says “no” to the idea of going over to a friend’s house to play, may, as a result of habit, become the adult who says no to a new job opportunity without sensing that the decision is being driven by an irrational internal mechanism.
People can also develop an irrational predisposition toward change, of course. Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, is concerned that the failure of elites to competently manage American and world affairs has led to a rebellion against the establishment. “So I worry today that the so-called establishment or what the establishment was long ago has lost too much status,”
Why is that a problem? “At the end of the day, a well-functioning society needs some amount of deference to experts – not unthinking deference, not mindless obedience – but when there’s a bipartisan consensus of well-educated people that it carries real weight,” explained Cowen.
Political discourse in the social media era has taken on an ugliness that sees us choosing sides and then becoming shrill warriors for our side, quick to dispose of all decency in our eagerness to discredit those on the other side. This knee-jerk response to others, perceiving and maybe even treating them as less simply because they have come to a different conclusion in the complex calculation of political philosophy results in behavior that should cause personal embarrassment and which hardens us to the free exchange of ideas.
Hating one side or another of the political divide limits us in our ability to join together to solve problems, just as status quo bias in other parts of our lives cuts us off from the rich journey that an imaginative mind and an open heart might take us on.
We should all reconsider.