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Decisions – Are you making any?

Every day, we make countless numbers of small decisions. What am I going to wear? Where should I go for lunch? Should I sign up for a drama class next semester? If you are a high school or college student, you are probably making decisions about these all the time. Remember that time in the High School Musical (the movie), when the lead actor, Troy Bolton, had to make a really tough decision? He had an option to try something new and sing with his crush, Gabriella, but his basketball team, the Wildcats, asked him to stick to the stuff he already knew.

HSM 1 – Stick to The Status Quo

Now, if you love High School Musical as much as I do, you probably remember that the Wildcats asked Troy to stick to the status quo. Now, you probably always wanted to know, what is the status quo? Let me answer that for you.

Status Quo is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person is faced with a complex decision to make and chooses to stay in his or her current state, refraining from looking for an alternative. Our everyday decisions may be the result of the status quo bias.

The status quo happens exactly as Wild Cats sang about it – all it takes is to stick to the stuff you know. Wildcats suggested that it seems to be better to keep the things as they are, than to mess with the flow. However, in real life, when making decisions, real people make a list of pros and cons for a number of options, they look for alternatives, and judge the quality of the possible choices. According to Kahneman and Tversky (1983), people would rather experience loss while remaining in their current state than take a risk and disrupt the status quo. Lots of people would rather keep their current choice of phone provider, dining services, and housing preferences, than search for different options. This bias can pop-up in everyday actions, such as when we are deciding between two flavors of ice-cream, or thinking whether to get a new pair of shoes or not.

Decision Making Process

People tend to make decisions in everyday life situations thinking that what we chose is the best possible option. However, Galotti (2002) suggests that our cognitive system can be inaccurate and lead to errors, and presents a five-phase model of decision-making. First, in order to make a decision, we must set a realistic goal that we would like to accomplish. Big goals might get cut into smaller ones, or could get changed along the way. Next, we must gather all the available information about our route to the goal. This stage requires us to gain the knowledge necessary to make the decision. Then, we organize our data, structure our decision, and consider all pros and cons gathered in the process.


Decision Making Path

Lastly, Galotti suggests that making a decision is not an easy task and that we usually tend to make biased decisions. In other words, LTM storage is made out of the previous experiences and being able to retrieve the past information helps us to compare and encode the new information. Now, while retrieving the past information we become biased to the pre-existing decisions, and we usually make a choice to stick to the status quo.

For example, I wanted to eat ice-cream for breakfast, so I went to the store and bought the Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. You may think that it was an easy decision to make, but the truth is, I had trouble deciding which flavor I wanted, so I just went for my usual choice: chocolate. According to the research on decision-making preferences by Sameulson and Zeckhauser (1988), I have experienced the status quo bias.

Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) revisited several experiments that talk about cognitive misperceptions that occur people are making decisions. Many of these studies have found that, when making decisions, people prefer status quo over alternatives. In their study, Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) introduced an option of a framed status quo alternative. Framing status quo means that one of the possible choices is to stick to the current state, instead of making a subsequent change. Researchers indicated that people tend to choose their regular over an alternative, because, if any new actions were taken, people would regret not sticking with previous choices. They also found that, when the framed status quo was introduced, cognitive dissonance played a central role in peoples’ decisions to prefer their current state. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the psychological state of inconsistent thoughts that occurs when one is presented with large amount of choices and alternatives (Festinger, 1957). Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) found that even when offered alternative options, people tend to prefer their current state. However, researchers indicated that participants did exhibit the increased status quo bias during decision making, with decreasing bias towards the status quo as the benefits of alternatives increased. If you are interested, you can read more about the study here.

Afraid of change?

Let’s say I suddenly became afraid of the Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Core ice cream because a friend got food poisoning while eating it. Being exposed to the threat of a bad stomachache, the range of my alternative choices of ice cream decreases. Kay et al. (2010) suggested that when complex decisions are presented with a threat, people tend to underestimate the value of an alternative and accept their current status. Now, if I was to buy ice cream for lunch, I would totally go for my previous choice, the Chocolate Therapy.


Where are we heading?

In the recent study on the power of the status quo, Kay et al. (2010) suggest that if we prime the alternative option with the threat, status quo can interfere with the decision-making processes. In their study, female participants were presented with the status quo biased data that suggests that there is a gender inequality at working place and were asked to rate to what extent do they agree with the data. However, some participants were primed with a threat – they were told to rate the experimenter and email the evaluation directly to her advisor. Kay et al. suggested that, if people observe that there are few women in the data, it is possible they will also negatively rate women at higher positions since they are seen as deviating from the norm. Results indicate that participants, who learned that women were underrepresented in higher positions and were primed with the threat, underrate the experimented and exhibited signs of status quo (Kay et. al., 2010). In other words, these findings suggest that when people are faced with an alternative that is primed with a threat, they are more likely to stick to the already existing data and show the significant influence of status quo bias.

The status quo is exactly what Wildcats demonstrated – it seems to be better to keep the things as they are than to mess with the flow, and all it takes is to stick to the stuff you know. In other words, if we cannot make a decision, it is better to stick to our previous choice. According to the Kahneman and Tversky (1983), people chose the norm over an alternative, because, if any new actions were taken, people would experience stronger regret for their losses. Whether it’s a cognitive dissonance or the fear of change, the truth is, most individuals tend to stick to the status quo. From what research I have done, there has been enough evidence that, when making decisions, we cognitively stick to what we already know. I hope this answers the question for all of you High School Musical fans.

If you would like to learn more about the status quo bias, please read the CogBlog posts by C Walsh and N Zolper.



Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Galotti, K.M. (2002). Making decisions that matter. How people face important life choices. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kahneman, D., Tversky, A. (1983). Choices, values, and frames. American Psychologist, Vol 39(4), Apr 1984, 341-350. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.39.4.341

Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97(3), 421-434. doi:10.1037/a0015997

Samuelson, W., and Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 1: 7–59. doi:10.1007/bf00055564

Songs retrieved from:

Stick to The Status Quo by HSM 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYZpZr3Cv7I

Images retrieved from:

HSM 1 – Stick to The Status Quo – https://33.media.tumblr.com/11e51983970e8d744a4623513798f46c/tumblr_ndrnh8eJ1j1tazjlwo2_250.gif

Where are we heading? –

Decision Making Path – https://changecom.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/decision-making.jpg


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