Home > Cognitive Bias, Decision Making > Don’t mess with the flow, no, no! Stick to the status quo!

Don’t mess with the flow, no, no! Stick to the status quo!

Have you been using the same brand of toothpaste for years? Do you tend to eat the same meal everyday? Do you stay on Facebook for hours simply because it was pulled up on your computer when you turned it on?

HSM “Stick to the status quo”

Each of these situations may be a result of your status quo bias. You’ve probably heard of the status quo, maybe that High School Musical song is floating around somewhere in your head. The status quo is exactly how Chad Danforth sang it- it’s the situation that you’re in at each moment in time. For you, right now, it is sitting (or laying or standing) at a computer (or mobile device!) and reading this awesome blog about the status quo bias (whoa your status quo is reading about the status quo!). Now the status quo bias deviates here from High School Musical. Where the Wildcats were singing for everyone to stick to the status quo because it was better or superior to any alternative, the status quo bias is basically sticking with the status quo because it’s the status quo.

Although the status quo bias effects everyone, most studies examining the status quo bias have been done by economists. This is because  economists initially assumed that people would make rational choices when buying goods. And their assumption was backed up by data when there were only two choices- A or B. If A is better than B, or vice versa, then participants will make the rational choice and choose the better option. However, when faced with a choice between the A, and B, where A is better than B, but B is what you have now- a majority of participants will choose B even though the rational choice is A.

Don't go to this site, ours is better

CogBlog- Media Village

For example, let’s say you open your computer browser and you have two options: go to Facebook or go to Colby College’s CogBlog. Now I may be biased, but there’s clearly a better choice: the CogBlog! If nothing was already typed into your browser you would make the rational choice, go to the CogBlog site, and thoroughly enjoy yourself. However, if you opened your computer and Facebook was already pulled up on your browser, when choosing between Facebook and CogBlog, you wouldn’t be reading this post (unless your cousin’s husband’s sister shared our link on your Facebook newsfeed- please share this blog on your newsfeed)!

Now, where’s my proof you ask?! In a 2011 study examining the Dutch healthcare system, which all Dutch citizens are required to buy from a private health insurer, participants were asked to choose between insurance providers, given a list of their attributes, such as financial incentives and qualitative incentives, and accompanying levels, such as copayments and opening hours. Participants are then told to describe their current health insurance plan and compare that insurance plan to a hypothetical new one. This part of their study allowed the researchers to examine the value participants placed on staying with their current health plan, compared to a new plan. When their current healthcare plan and the hypothetical plan  had all the same attributes and levels, participants were 40% more likely to choose their existing plan over the new one, compared to the 50-50 odds if the healthcare providers were both hypothetical (Boonen, Donkers, & Schut, 2011). This study provides evidence for what impact the status quo bias can have on real life decisions. Although the authors of this study did not examine the monetary value of people’s preference towards their current situation, it is an import question to ponder. How much more could a current provider charge before you would consider switching? Conversely, how much less would their opponent have to charge to get you to switch?

Dogs make decisions too

In 1988, Samuelson and Zeckhauser completed a study testing the effect of the status quo bias. Participants completed a questionnaire about decisions that either an individual, a manager, or a government policymaker were facing that matched each of the three professions. Within these decisions, there was often a status quo position and alternative choices. Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) found that participants showed the status quo bias during decision making between two equally ranked options and that as more alternatives were added, there was an increasing bias towards the status quo. In addition, Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) found that the status quo bias decreases as the benefit for switching increases.

Let’s go back to the CogBlog versus Facebook example. Remember where we left off? When you turned on your computer, Facebook was already pulled up and you, sadly, never went to the CogBlog website to read this article. (I know that didn’t happen, because you’re reading this now, but stick with me!) Given the evidence from Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988), had Facebook already been pulled up, you would be even more likely to stay on Facebook with each increasing website added to your potential options. So, if you turned on your computer and Facebook was pulled up, you would be even less likely to leave Facebook when your other options were CogBlog and, say, Pintrest. On the other hand, if you heard through the grapevine that, in addition to CogBlog being super interesting and fun, those that tuned into the CogBlog were given $5 giftcards to someplace awesome (not true, but maybe ask Professor Jen Coane, PhD, and she’ll be feeling generous??), then even if Facebook was already pulled up when you turned on your computer, you’d be more likely to overcome the status quo bias and turn to http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/!

Jennifer Aniston thinking

How do we make everyday decisions involved in choosing to stay in the situation we’re in or changing our situation? Judgement and decision making is a complex part of human cognition. In a 2006 study conducted four experiments to examine judgement and decision making under uncertain conditions. To understand their conclusions, you might need to be reminded how cognitive processes work. All cognitive processes use either automatic or controlled processes, or a combination of the two. An automatic process is one that does not require attention, awareness, or general resources. For example, walking down the street is an automatic process, you don’t require attentional resources to make sure your body walks correctly. A controlled process is one that does require attention, awareness, or general resources and is a voluntary action. An example of a controlled process is you reading this blog right now and thinking about its content. The researchers of this study operated under the dual nature theory. The dual nature theory of judgement is that it operate on both levels, some part of a decision is made automatically while the other part is controlled. The study conducted by Ferreira, Garcia-Marques, Sherman, and Sherman found evidence to support the dual nature theory and also that the controlled resources are responsive to training (meaning you get better at controlled processes as you practice them; remember how hard learning to read was? It’s much easier now). In addition, these processes begin at the same time but because controlled processes usually finish first, automatic reasoning only succeeds to make the decision when the controlled process fails (Ferreira et al., 2006). Using this model, decision making towards the status quo is either a controlled process because it happens so often or an automatic process that occurs when the controlled process fails because bias towards the status quo usually goes against rational thought.

From what research I’ve read, there has not been a consensus about why humans cognitively stick to what they know.  What we know now is that the status quo bias often influences what we choose to do. What we don’t know is why. Is it because the status quo takes up more attentional resources and is then more noticeable? Is it because you assume you must have been right the first time (that lead you to choose the status quo) and so it must be right again? Or is it an avoidance of making any decision at all? Sadly for your reading pleasure, there has not been a definite explanation that answers each aspect of the status quo bias and it must be studied further.

For a summary of this blog, read the paragraph next to this

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The TLDR of this blog is that the status quo bias is effects people who have to choose between their current situation (their status quo) and something else. Even if the other situation is slightly better then their status quo, most people will chose the status quo. They’ll become increasingly more likely to choose their status quo when they’re faced with more options. But, they’ll become increasingly more likely to overcome the status quo bias the more rewarding other options are (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988). This bias effects everyday decisions like choosing what websites to surf and important decisions like choosing between healthcare providers (Boonen, Donkers, & Schut, 2011). You should be aware of this bias and make sure that you choose the better option for you rather than succumbing to the status quo bias- Next time you find yourself sitting on Facebook all day, simply because it was on your computer when you turned it on, become aware that you’re succumbing and do your best to over come this bias by increasing the benefits of switching!

I now give you permission to leave this status quo and return to Facebook or another blog post! Thank you for taking the time to read this blog! Please comment with questions, new information, or suggestions!

Minions saying “thank you!”

Want more of the status quo bias? See more CogBlogs by Cole Walsh and Adela Ramovic!


Boonen, L. H., Donkers, B., & Schut, F. T. (2011). Channeling consumers to preferred providers and the impact of status quo bias: does type of provider matter?. Health services research46, 510-530.

Ferreira, M. B., Garcia-Marques, L., Sherman, S. J., & Sherman, J. W. (2006). Automatic and controlled components of judgment and decision making. Journal of personality and social psychology91(5), 797.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of risk and uncertainty1, 7-59.

  1. nbzolper
    May 2nd, 2017 at 22:00 | #1

    Thanks for your comments E, Mollie, and Adela! Glad I could entertain you for a bit!

    E- I’m not sure exactly how attention plays a role in this bias, but it seems like Mollie is onto something with her comment! It does seem like Kahneman’s (1973) capacity framework model can be applied to the status quo bias! I think diverging from the status quo may have something to with the reward of switching from the status quo. As Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) found, as the reward for switching from the status quo increased, the status quo bias decreases. So, after being on one site for a while, the reward to switch sites may be greater! Hope that helps!

    Mollie- As I said above, I think you’re definitely onto something with Kahneman’s (1973) capacity framework! It does seem like “sticking to the status quo” is actually an aversion to making a decision, which saves attentional resources for other things and maybe is applied more when attentional resources are already close to their capacity? I’m not totally sure, but it sounds good! Thanks for your insight 🙂

    Adela- Your blog was awesome! IF ANYONE IS READING THIS COMMENT READ ADELA’S BLOG ON STATUS QUO! About controlled vs. automatic processes for decisions that show a status quo bias, I was making my best guess that, because it shows up so much, controlled processes must be being used, because we can’t possibly fail that much! What do you think? I’d love to rewatch HSM and determine when poor Troy succumbs to the status quo!

  2. May 1st, 2017 at 23:04 | #2

    Hi N! Thank you so much for linking my blog to yours, you’re the best!

    I gotta say, you did an amazing job. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I learned ever more about my own topic *whoo*
    I like the idea of judgement and decision making A LOT. So the evidence that Ferreira et al. found suggests that both automatic and controlled resources are used in decision making, but that only the controlled processes are responsive to training in order to reach the decision? Is this in a way that when we are making judgements about toothpaste and enter the status quo – we are actually using a controlled process?

    Sadly we have to do more research on the bias in order to explain how it works, and how can one overcome it. One last question, do you think we should watch HSM again and find the exact scenes where Troy “sticks to the status quo?”

    Ferreira, M. B., Garcia-Marques, L., Sherman, S. J., & Sherman, J. W. (2006). Automatic and controlled components of judgment and decision making. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(5), 797.

  3. May 1st, 2017 at 22:20 | #3

    Thanks for such an awesome blog post! I really enjoyed learning more about status quo bias beyond just the high school musical song, and it made me rethink some of the choices I’m making in my life. When you were talking about automatic and controlled processes at the end of your blog, and that we still don’t really know why we don’t like change, I thought of Kahneman’s (1973) capacity framework models. This model highlights the fact that attention is a finite resource and we much allocate what gets attention and what doesn’t. If we stick to the status quo, this uses fewer controlled processes than if we deliberately stray from the status quo, and therefore have to use controlled processes when using our decision making skills. Do you think that part of the reason why we stick to what we know is that we simply do not have the attentional capacity to be making decisions all the time, so if something is working well enough, we choose to let it go and save our attention for other, more important decisions?

  4. eholland
    May 1st, 2017 at 19:37 | #4

    Such an interesting post! I find myself staying on TV channels and awful radio stations all the time due to this bias. It’s interesting how both automatic and controlled processes are used in parallel within this bias, and how it all happens subconsciously. How does attention play a role in this bias? If someone is faced with simultaneous distractions and can not properly inhibit incoming information, I have a feeling they would be more likely to experience this bias than if they were attending to information on the screen of their computer. In the case where people start off listening or watching what is considered the status quo, and then change to what they want to attend to, is the change simply due to boredom and how do we know? If it is, we would use our controlled processes to consciously change what we want to see, however more often than not I find myself switching over to Facebook and ending up on my email without even knowing it due to automatic processes. Which is more common, and how does context influence which process we use?

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