Home > Uncategorized > What Do High School Musical and the 2016 Election Have in Common? Status Quo Bias.

What Do High School Musical and the 2016 Election Have in Common? Status Quo Bias.

In 2006, the cast of High School Musical sang and danced wildly in a school cafeteria, preaching the benefits of “sticking to the status quo.” All the students in the school, jocks, academics, musicians, protested the changing school-climate, one becoming increasingly accepting and diverse. In the context of the movie, this song serves to characterize high schools across the nation as afraid of change and difference. To the audience’s later astonishment, the students are able to overcome this bias against change, celebrating the ultimate destruction of the rigid high school social borders! This heroic defeat of the high school caste system is certainly enjoyable for a generation of millennials, despite the 56% rotten tomatoes rating. Yet, in reality, change concerning social systems is far more difficult to achieve. In fact, the fear of change itself has its roots in cognitive and social psychology with what is called the status quo bias.


Simply put, the status quo bias is known as people’s general preference for the existing and enduring states of the world and one’s own self (Eidelman & Crandall, 2012). Most people would sooner their life stay static than to welcome a new change, big or small. This phenomenon is what often prevents people from people making life changes, such as moving to a new home, trying a new diet, or even changing their preferred route home from work. Because stasis provides feelings of comfort and security, most people tend to avoid the threats of a new change or lifestyle. In High School Musical, super basketball stud Troy Bolton fears that his newfound interest in musical theatre will threaten the social safety in his athletic passions. Similarly, Gabriella is scared that the spotlight of a career in theatre will bring unwanted attention to her quiet, scholarly ways. Both protagonists show a preference for their current social group out of worry that they might be thought less of by other students if they joined another one- a prime example of sticking to the status quo!

The ever-relevant Troy and Gabriella both fear they have something to lose by going against the status quo, a principle psychologists call loss aversion. This is essentially the idea that the losses of a potential outcome will weigh far more than the gains in terms of decision making (Li, Liu & Liu, 2016). People tend to ruminate more on the negative effects of a risky decision or memory, making it difficult to view the positive effects as attainable. This phenomenon is especially likely if the decision-maker in question has a range of negative memories that make an unhappy outcome see more probable. Because they believe that the negative effects are more likely, they therefore go to great lengths to avoid them by sticking to the status quo. Say, for example, that you are considering going on a difficult hike by yourself. You know this is a risky decision for a wide-variety of reasons, but you also have a friend who was really injured hiking this trail alone. Because of the availability of this one memory, you decide not to go on the hike- you don’t want to get hurt like them! The influence of your memories and the basic idea that, without proper training, people should not hike alone, work together to get people to stick to the status quo.


Yet, some other psychologists believe that people tend to show the status quo bias as a result of the cost of change. While this is related to loss aversion, this theory places higher emphasis on the fact that change in itself is taxing. Decision-making is a cognitive process that can consume a great deal of mental energy and so people tend to prefer inaction over action (Ritov & Baron, 1990). This means that, overall, people tend to not bother going through the process described above, weighing positives and negatives in order to make an informed decision about the future. Since they do not go through this process, things simply remain the same. In the context of High School Musical, it would be far easier for In other words, a lack of action and a bias against taxing mental processes facilitates the status quo. 

So, we know the status quo bias is relevant to High School Musical and personal decisions, but this cognitive bias has greater implications for the world we live in today. If we think back to the presidential election of 2016 (the one that had everyone on edge for a wide variety of reasons), we can see the effects of the status quo bias operating on a large-scale. Conservatism, the political ideology that prevailed with the election of Donald Trump, has its root in the status quo bias (Eidelman & Crandall, 2012). The conservative ideology is rooted in preserving the traditional values, institutions, and practices of America. A fear that the state of our nation was departing too far from the idealized America of the past was at the very center of Trump’s campaign, as evidenced by his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again! Many American citizens voted for Trump under the impression that he would repeal some of the changes previous progressive administrations had been working towards. Clearly, to some degree the status quo bias is at work here as America showed a preference for the past over the present.

This same phenomenon occurred in the democratic primary elections, as democrats clearly favored Hilary Clinton, who has been a representative of the Democratic party for a long time, over Bernie Sanders, a far more progressive candidate. Clinton’s ability to grab 3.6 million more votes than Sanders showed that, even the liberal faction of America has a resistance to change. Moving forward, we might have to look to High School Musical (as scary as that sounds) for inspiration and other more serious examples that change can have positive, significant effects in order to overcome this innate human bias.


Eidelman, S., & Crandall, C. S. (2012). Bias in favor of the status quo. Social and personality

psychology compass, 6(3), 270-281.

Li, J., Liu, M., & Liu, X. (2016). Why do employees resist knowledge management systems? An

empirical study from the status quo bias and inertia perspectives. Computers in human behavior,

65, 189-200.

Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1999). Protected values and omission bias. Organizational Behavior And Human Decision Processes, 79(2), 79-94.

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  1. asweiss
    April 17th, 2017 at 22:15 | #1

    This post flowed very well, while also being extremely informative and applicable to daily life and culture! Rivot and Baron’s study (1990), as written about in this post, was informative in understanding this cognitive bias, because it simply stated that decision-making is taxing for cognition, and we are therefore less interested in engaging in it. Based on this research, it seems as if, almost evolutionarily, we are hesitant to change due to its taxation on mental energy that can be used towards other areas of cognition. It could be interesting to perform research on individuals’ happiness levels in relation to their ability to accept and encourage change in their lives, or even the ways that the status quo bias is culturally significant, as the ways we process change may be encouraged or discouraged based on the culture we are assimilated to and the ways that culture understands change. In addition, I found the research discussed on the role of memory in the strength of the status quo bias to be interesting as well. Again, I feel that evolution plays a role in the ways that someone would choose not to perform an activity or make a choice that they hold some sort of negative memory about, as it could be potentially unsafe for them and contribute to a weakness that would not allow them to be successful in natural selection and reproduction. Research discussed in class by Nairne et al. could support this idea. Furthering research on memory and the status quo bias, the role of misinformation in memory formation could lead individuals to either strengthen their necessity to stick to the status quo, or diverge from it. If they are presented with misinformation that alters a memory to be more positive or more negative, this could alter their decisions in the future when encountering change.

  2. May 11th, 2017 at 13:53 | #2

    I love how you were able to relate the status quo bias to two such important life events for every millennial: High School Musical and the 2016 Presidential Election. The reasons we create a status quo is very intriguing. Both reasons seem to be part of our natural instinct to protect ourselves. While no one likes a pessimist, coming up with potential negatives of a choice could prevent you from doing something really stupid. That being said, rumination is unproductive and cognitively depleting. Decision-making is a controlled process, while sticking to the status quo appears to be automatic. It makes sense that people would choose to do what take the least amount of cognitive resources. I also wonder if our resistance to change has anything to do with the schemas and scripts we have for events in our lives. If we become comfortable in our ways, then a disruption in our schemas could potentially make us uncomfortable and challenge what know to be our truth. Also, High School Musical is always a good place to turn for a positive example.

  3. May 14th, 2017 at 16:38 | #3

    You bring up a really interesting idea about the roles of automatic and controlled processes in the status quo, thanks! I do think that sometimes sticking to the status quo is automatic, but it may also be a controlled process occasionally. I think it is dependent on the nature of the status quo that is being weighed by the individual. For example, a status quo that does not seem morally acceptable, such as many of the status quos in Nazi Germany, may be harder to follow. In this case, the act of “sticking” to it may be more controlled than automatic. However, when the status quo is something more like brushing your teeth everyday, this “sticking” to this status quo would be more automatic. Like the Stroop study (1935), the degree of attention required to either stick or resist the status quo probably creates this difference between automatic and controlled processes.

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