Status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, even when there are no obvious reasons why this state of affairs should be preferred over possible and knowable alternatives.
A preference for the status quo is not always a bias and can be entirely rational in some cases:
- when the balance of costs and gains is in favor of the status quo and when all possible and knowable alternatives yield a lower balance
- when some alternative yields a higher balance but the transition cost is too high
- when your role in society requires that you are consistent (you’re a school teacher and you’re supposed to teach the canon, or a judge and precedent and predictability are important)
When a preference for the status quo is a form of reasonable risk avoidance, then it’s also wrong to call it a bias: it’s true that sticking with what worked in the past is a safe option when the consequences or costs of alternatives – compared to the cost of existing arrangements – are uncertain or unknowable.
However, people also tend to stick with proven options when the respective costs of different options are clear and an alternative is less costly than the status quo. We sometimes even prefer the status quo when costs aren’t an issue at all. In those cases, it’s correct to call our preferences a bias. Maybe the bias occurs because people don’t want to invest the effort of looking for alternatives and calculating all the costs. Status quo requires no mental effort. Choice is difficult, hence the tendency to do nothing. Or maybe cost calculations – when they are performed – are distorted because people wrongly attribute goodness to longevity. People often believe that something must be worth something if it has existed or if it has been practiced for a long time.
Cost calculations can also be biased because people tend to weigh the potential losses of switching from the status quo more heavily than the potential gains. This is called loss aversion - people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains even if the gains objectively outweigh the losses – and it could explain a preference for the status quo in the presence of alternatives that are objectively less costly. But status quo bias occurs even when there are no losses or gains from alternatives (experiments have shown that just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly). Hence, status quo bias is not always a form of loss aversion. Maybe regret avoidance plays a role (a past experience of regret teaches people to avoid decisions that imply change). Or an overvaluation of the virtue of consistency. Or the sunk cost fallacy: American involvement in Vietnam continued for years despite massive loss of lives, precisely because this loss would make defeat costly.
This last example shows how status quo bias can cause human rights violations. Other examples:
- The use of precedent in judicial decisions even if those decisions violate human rights (overvaluing consistency).
- Female genital mutilation often has no other justification than the fact that it has been practiced a long time, that it’s traditional (overvaluing longevity) and that abandoning it would cause disaster.
These are the countries that take the “war on drugs” almost literally and execute drug offenders on a large scale:
In China, the numbers are difficult to ascertain given the government’s tough stance on secrecy. Thousands are executed each year, but one can’t be more precise than that.
The Dui Hua Foundation suggests that approximately 5,000 people were executed in 2009, and states that “the manufacture, transport, smuggling, or trafficking of illegal drugs account for a significant number of executions reported by Chinese media”. (source)
Other countries in Asia also use the death penalty as a punishment for drug crimes, but to a lesser extent.
(source, also for the story behind this picture)
On June 8th, 1972, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut takes a picture of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc running away from an air strike, with her clothes burnt off and her skin hanging in shreds as a result of napalm.
Here are stills from a movie shot by photo-journalists Alan Downes (ITN) and Le Phuc Dinh (NBC), which shows the events just before and after the iconic photograph of Kim Phuc was taken:
Here’s the video (warning: it’s extremely distressing):
Amazingly, the girl survived, thanks in part to Ut who took her to hospital. Here she is today:
(source, also for the story behind this photo taken by Malcolm Browne)
Thich Quang Duc was born in 1897 and was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He burned himself to death on a busy street in Saigon on June 11, 1963 as a protest against South Vietam’s persecution of Buddhists.