So i was delighted when i read that there might actually be a cognitive bias behind our stuckness: The Status Quo Bias. It’s explained thusly:
We humans tend to be apprehensive of change, which often leads us to make choices that guarantee that things remain the same, or change as little as possible. Needless to say, this has ramifications in everything from politics to economics. We like to stick to our routines, political parties, and our favorite meals at restaurants. Part of the perniciousness of this bias is the unwarranted assumption that another choice will be inferior or make things worse. The status quo bias can be summed up with the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — an adage that fuels our conservative tendencies. And in fact, some commentators say this is why the U.S. hasn’t been able to enact universal health care, despite the fact that most individuals support the idea of reform.
Cognitive biases are thought to be evolutionary adaptations that are making our lives easier by providing consistency, for example, as the status quo bias does that can lead to a sense of stability and safety and a reduction in anxiety. If my tribe rests consistently at the same place, i can easily find them after collecting berries. Cognitive biases can also create difficulties for us when we are unable to make changes simply because we think that the way things are works just fine (and any evidence to the contrary must be doctored up… – the confirmation bias at play).
Now, biases aren’t destiny, though they are difficult to counteract with more awareness of their impact on us, maybe they can be overcome. I set out to see if there is research on how to exactly do that in the case of the status quo bias. Let me summarize what i’ve found.
To make decisions that are less influenced by the status quo bias, it helps to procrastinate a bit. When we have to make a decision fast, we prefer the way things are. Delaying the decision can also give us time to do a bit more research, which might enable us to be more objective. Be careful, though, because a delay can also be driven by the status quo bias! That might be the case if you hear reasoning like “let’s just wait and see what happens.”
It also helps to reduce the number of choices we can make. If we’re overwhelmed by lots of options, rather than relishing in all those choices, we tend to withdraw into the safety of the status quo.
Analysis paralysis can also keep us in the status quo – and that paralysis can especially happen when we’re trying to find the perfect solution, the perfect choice. Again, we probably feel overwhelmed by this daunting task, which might even be impossible to complete. Instead, we can try to find the best choice given current circumstances and information. You might want to add the status quo as one of your choices. Making the status quo an active choice, rather than the default, can show whether it might be the best choice.
If you want a more formal approach, you could try the “reversal test.” This test shifts the burden of proof to those opposed to change if they would be opposed to change in either direction away from the status quo. The example John Danaher gives is that of a proposed increase to the speed limit. If the people who are opposed to raising it by 10 mph are also objecting to a decrease of 10 mph, they are (at least implicitly) saying that the status quo is perfect. Can they back that claim up? If not, they might be impacted by the status quo bias.
To sharpen this test, Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord suggest to imagine a natural event that produces a change to the status quo. Would we counter that event so that the value be brought back to the status quo? If we do, would we maintain that intervention even when the natural event reverses itself? Danaher outlines their example. Instead of recounting this here, i want to see if i can apply this test to somewhere where we are stuck: Climate change.
Say, for some miraculous (and highly unlikely) reason, worldwide CO2 levels would suddenly drop to 350, the level scientists agree is the highest to avoid global climate disruption, and stay there. Would we then implement policies to bring the CO2 level back up to 394 (the current level) as quickly as possible? Very likely not. Thus it is likely that current opposition to changes that reduce CO2 levels is driven by the status quo bias: Let’s not change anything in our policies!
Now, it seems that Bostrom and Ord’s test is most useful when we are trying to make ethical decisions. I am not sure if we can apply it to personal decisions, though maybe the question “what would i do if i were to become financially independent” is akin to a natural event when i am trying to figure out how to spend the rest of my life. If i would not do the same as i am doing now, maybe it is time to make some changes! And if i would just continue doing what i am doing, maybe those changes i have been envisioning aren’t really part of my path.