January 22, 2017

The Status Quo Bias: Barrier to Progress

If we define progress as development in the direction of a better situation then from this definition it follows that progress is something good. Much research has suggested that the feeling of making progress is good for us in various ways. Roughly it can be said that the perception of progress is associated with more positive emotions, more motivation, and better performance. You would say that choosing progress is always easy. But it isn't. 

The status quo bias and related cognitive errors

One factor which often impedes progress is the so-called status quo bias. What it means is an irrational preference for the current situation. Put differently: we have a misplaced tendency to view the current situation as good and any change of the current situation as undesirable or suspicious. Of course, it is possible to have rational preference for current situations. The preference for the current situation is irrational when there is an alternative which can be reasonably assumed to be superior to the current situation. The status quo bias has been demonstrated often in research and it is common. 

The status quo bias is related to a series of other bias. Here are the most important: loss aversion, the endownment effect, the existence bias, and the mere exposure effect. Loss aversion is our inclination to view it as more important to prevent loosing something than to gain something of the same valuse. Research suggests that the psychological impact of loosing something is about twice as strong as the psychological impact of acquiring something. The endownment effect is related to this bias. It means that people generally attach more value to things they possess than to things they do not possess.

The existence bias means that we interpret the existence of something as an evidence that it is something good. A variant of this is longevity bias which means that we view the fact that something has existed for a long time as evidence that it is something good. The mere exposure effect, finally, means that we tend to view things we know from our own experience as better than things we have little or no experience with.

The status quo bias happens, as do many other biases, unconsciously, and affects various, if not all areas of our life. Also, it affect both the lives of individuals and society as a whole. This bias can to some extent explain why we often tend to hold on to outdated ideas and behaviors. Also, it explains irrational conservatism in politics. Even when there is clear evidence that views are not right, we often find it hard to let go of them.

The status quo bias and criticism of psychology

I saw a special example of the status quo bias last week when I wrote about criticism of mindset research. Some researchers have justly pointed out some mistakes and examples of carelessness in a few studies into mindset. This is just one example of the criticism which has been brought forward of psychological research in the last few years. This criticism is important and good. But we must be careful not to fall prey to the status quo bias.

Not only new approaches such as the growth mindset need to prove themselves. This also applies to the status quo and this is something we often forget. We not only need to criticize researchers who do their best to test their ideas rigorously. We need to look as critically at all existing practices in organizations and schools. Just the fact that they exist now and thus are the default option can't be seen as evidence for their efficacy. Many of these practices are not even subjected to any kind of research. "We have always done it like this", does not mean we should keep doing it.

It is true that the empirical evidence for the growth mindset is not perfect. But its empirical support is relatively good (read more). Which practices in (for example) education are better empirically supported? I think it is hard to find examples. I hope critics of psychological science will do two things. The first is to keep criticizing psychological research and help improve it. The second is to be as critical of the many unexamined practices which are all around at work and in schools. In other words: to not only expose mistakes in psychological studies but to also and especially criticize the fact that empirical support of many methods lack any empirical support whatsoever.

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