In innovation projects, we often hear about companies resisting a change to the status quo.
In this case, the status quo being how things are currently done.
As a result, many innovation projects fail at the final hurdle, when they are asked to actually implement the change they were designed for.
But is this preference for the status quo real?
Yes it is.
So much so that it has been studied extensively, and is known as the Status Quo Bias.
Status quo bias is an emotional bias; a preference for the current state of affairs.
The current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss.
Research examples which show the effect of the status quo bias include:
- Germany having a significantly lower proportion of people who are organ donors compared to neighboring Austria, because in Germany the default is to NOT be an organ donor and you need to Opt-In, whereas in Austria the default is you are an organ donor and you need to Opt-Out
- Research participants choosing theoretical investment choices much more frequently if they were told that option is the default of what they already have
- People who have wine they bought at a lower price in the past which they enjoy drinking not wanting to sell for a profit or buy more
- People sticking with their current retirement mutual funds even when they are no longer performing as well as they should
The reason behind this feeling is that before making any major decision, it is unclear exactly what the outcomes would be, and the negativity bias we all have means that our brain is to pay more attention to the possible losses based on the decision that the possible gains.
Research has even shown that our brain needs to work harder and use different pathways when attempting to make a difficult decision compared to an easy one, so the brain prefers to stick with the default answer which requires less processing. In fact, that research indicated that:
the more difficult the decision we face, the more likely we are not to act.
And since the current default state we live in seems to have worked for us so far, the brain prefers things it has experienced repeatedly before and therefore prefers the options which stay as close to the status quo than those which could dramatically change things.
In many cases, that option to keep things as close to the status quo as possible is in fact to decide to change nothing.
Researchers have even developed a test to help people see if they are suffering from the status quo bias, called the Reversal Test.
In this test, people are asked to think about a scenario when something bad could happen if a certain trait was increased (like human intelligence). Some people would point out the risks of higher intelligence leading to the development of new weapons or nuclear danger. The same person is then asked whether if increasing that trait is a bad thing, would it be good to decrease that trait? This can determine if people have a preference for keeping things as they currently are instead of changing, even if the change could be for the better. This test has however come under scrutiny as to whether it is effective or not.
So it appears as though most of us are hard-wired with a Status Quo bias. How then should we ever hope to achieve change in ourselves, our teams and our companies.
As happens so often, the mere exposure effect can come to our rescue here as well. The more often someone is exposed to a new idea, the more positive they are likely to see it.
If we bring people onboard early enough, they will have the opportunity to be exposed to the new idea frequently enough to start to see it more positively, and therefore be willing to work with it.
So the next time you get frustrated with a colleague who is trying to stop an idea by keeping the status quo, understand that it is biology doing it, and help them along the process.
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