The Status Quo Bias: Why It’s so Hard to Change (Or maybe I’m just lazy)

The status quo bias is a term used in psychology to refer to a cognitive effect in which people prefer the “current situation” even when they are aware of the benefits of changing. I first encountered this term while watching an economic course video series from The Great Courses (I like these videos a lot, but recently haven’t had time for them), and I almost shouted out loud “Holy crap, that’s me!”

My reaction was prompted by an example the professor in the video used to illustrate the status quo bias: you sign up for magazine subscription since the signing up price is low (you must’ve seen some of the “Only xx$ for the first xx months” advertisements right?), and then after the trial period is over and you have to pay full price, you still keep the subscription. Well, at least that’s true for me. I like reading stuff and often overestimate the amount of stuff I can read, usually due to me being too optimistic about having free time and/or diligence. I used to subscribe to 4 magazines: TIME, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs and all these subscriptions started on “introductory price”.  I liked these mags (and I still do) but I realized quite soon that I couldn’t read them all. And on regular prices, they are quite pricey, especially when you add up all 4 of them. I am not rich (quite poor actually), I don’t have time, and I know that. Yet, amazingly, I kept these subscriptions for THREE YEARS !!! Every time the magazines arrived in the mails I would put them away while thinking “I’ll read them eventually”. Deep down inside I knew I would not, not all of them anyway.

So I’ve always been aware of my non-adventurous side but I used to attribute that to my personal traits instead of a psychological phenomenon which everyone is susceptible to (to varying degrees). After being introduced to this effect, I have read up a little on it and it is really interesting how strong it is. Consider Robert Nozick’s famous thought experiment, the Experience Machine, and please think about it and give your own answer. 1) Imagine there’s a machine which can stimulate your brain to give you any experience you may want and YOU CAN’T DISTIGUISH it from reality. Would you want to be plugged in for life? Most people would say no (I answer “No”), presumably because we don’t want to forgo our real lives and go live in a continuous dream (no matter how beautiful and real it could be). Makes sense, all well and good. But consider this next 2) Now imagine it’s another beautiful day in your beautiful life; you wake up to the sound of your door bell. A serious looking gentleman is at your door, and lets you know that you’ve been plugged into an Experience Machine, everything you know is stimulated, your life is in fact a dream, and you have a choice whether to stay plugged. What is your answer?

I personally would choose to unplug. I’m a bit scared, to be honest, but I’d like my life to be real. However, a survey found that the majority of people asked actually chose to keep living the stimulated life. We fear the unknown, uncertainty and would rather cling on to what we know. It’s usually the “easy way out”: to do nothing, just leave things the way they are.

I think the actual test of how strong this effect can be is when it’s no longer the “easy” option, when the going gets rough, when the “status quo” becomes too hard to bear, would one still hold on to it? For me, I think my bias is not that strong, since I do choose to change when the situation requires it. My magazine subscriptions, for example, were alright for a long time even though I didn’t read them and the low introductory prices were no longer effective. However, last year I set a goal to travel to England this summer, and after some quick calculation, the required minimum expense was still enough to stun me. Given my puny paychecks, that number necessitates a strict cost-cutting plan which only allows for absolutely-essential stuff (housing, utilities, and food). So I cancelled all those magazines. Simple as that.

Simple as that!” is usually my reaction AFTER I take the action to change my course. It is just that first step that takes so much energy/determination – a very high “activation barrier” as we would say in chemistry. Once I’m in action-mode, things get done rather quickly, or even if there are additional obstacles, they’re not as challenging as that first step. That’s why I’ve taken up the “JUST DO IT!” attitude. It doesn’t mean to do things recklessly, but more like “you’ve spent enough time thinking and planning, stop hesitating and JUST DO IT!

The status quo effect is especially strong when the current situation seems GOOD (then why change, right?) It limits your view and prevents you from reaching something EVEN BETTER. I’ve been under the spell of this effect for a very long time, and regarding an important area: my career. I’ve been a chemistry student since high school. I picked Chemistry back then partially because I liked it, but also because I thought it was easier than Physics or Math (the introductory price was low, my friends). Then I found out that it was not that easy, it got progressively more difficult over time (the regular price was actually quite high). Problem was that, I became very good at it! Like seriously good (1st-place-nationally level of good, just to clarify, not to boast cuz it’s all in the past now), so I kept doing Chemistry in undergrad (why change, I’m so good at it!) And the status quo continued being very good, and thus very strong, so I stuck with it and became a Chem grad student, ahahaha (it’s actually not that funny I know). Throughout that whole process, I was always aware that I would not stay as a chemist for long in the future, there were always other things more appealing to me, yet I never broke the status quo.

Now though, I think it’s time to change. The situation is not bad actually, I’m still productive as a PhD candidate, and my grades are excellent; however it has become clear to me that my heart is not in chemistry, and that I have to listen to it and do something different now. The first step, again, is the hardest but I’m about to take it. It’s scary, really. After all, I’ve been doing chemistry for over 12 years; and to jump into a new field is frightening. But I’m doing it.

Do you have Status quo bias? Is it keeping you away from “bigger and better” things? You may not even be aware of it, but if you find yourself thinking about doing something different for forever and still haven’t done it, maybe it’s time to JUST DO IT!

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