The Perils of Being Stuck in a Pleasant Present: 7 Strategies for overcoming Status Quo Bias

“If you are considering a change, you are past the point where you should have made it.” Tyler Cowen, Economist

When was the last time you did something for the first time? When was the last time you took a risk, or even diverged from your usual routine?

Don’t feel bad if the answer to both those questions is “forever”. Humans are hardwired to fear change and get stuck in a rut. In fact, both behavioral economists and psychologists agree that this tendency to prefer things as they already are can have a huge impact on our choices and decision-making. It’s called the status quo bias, and I think it’s one of the powerful forces in the universe (with apologies to Thanos!).

First, let’s unpack the concept and explore why we resist change so strongly. There’s actually a good reason why we evolved to think this way, though like many vestiges of our time out on the savannah these evolutionary behaviors have outlived their usefulness.

We’re riddled with Brain Bugs from our Stone Age Selves.

We are hardwired for this through a witch’s brew of cognitive biases that collectively keep us stuck in park.

A cognitive bias is essentially a systematic error in our thinking process. Probably the most powerful is loss aversion, the tendency for most of us if given the choice, to avoid a loss rather than reap a reward. As irrational as it may seem, studies have shown that gaining something only makes you about half as happy as losing the same thing makes you unhappy. Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself when the sting of your beer league hockey team losing the championship sears more than than the thrill of having won it the previous year? (I know I have).

Loss aversion promotes conservatism and produces inertia. Altering our behavior usually involves an initial cost of some kind. From the benign (TV shows used to benefit from following popular programs by capitalizing on our laziness to even change the channel!) to the pernicious, this bias towards complacency is actually very costly as we’ll soon discover.

A related thinking trap is the endowment effect. We are overly susceptible to value a thing more than we should simply because it’s ours. People don’t want to give up possessions they have, even if offered more than they objectively consider a good price. In other words, it would take someone offering you $10,000 to sell the car you’re currently driving, but if someone offered you the exact. same. car. you’d only consider buying it for significantly less. It makes little sense, but there can be a huge spread between what something was worth buying and what it’s worth to you to sell — for no better reason than that we would have to give the thing up.

As you can imagine, these two bad brain habits can tilt you towards sticking it out — even if you’ve been thinking of making a change.

This is where another set of mental mistakes kick in. Confirmation bias ensures that you will cherry-pick any information you come across to support the choice you’ve already made. Despite the fact that your great mate keeps telling you that it’s time to quit your hockey team now (you have had 3 concussions, after all), you dismiss his sensible advice and focus instead on the “fact” that you’d fall out of shape if you stopped playing. And because we are hardwired to recall unpleasant memories more vividly than positive ones — the so-called negativity bias — we tend to give attentional priority to bad news, thus giving it more influence in our calculus than they deserve. A single bad experience of “change” can make someone fear it forever.

These are deep properties of mind, and there is an antiquated but nevertheless powerful evolutionary logic to these inclinations. Out on the savannah, it made sense to fear losses more than we sought gains. In those cases, losing meant dying — so you could forgive folks for attending to threats more urgently than opportunities. The hunter-gatherers who reacted vigorously to a worrying rustle in the trees lived to fight another day (and reproduce), even if it was just a false alarm. And their genes were passed on down to us, of course.

However, what was advantageous (adaptive, to use the evolutionary psychology term of art) on the African plains 150,000 years ago may not be so useful to us today in 2019 London or LA. In the distant past, Stone Age humans couldn’t afford to take risks; the cost of miscalculation was too high. Today the same arithmetic doesn’t apply. It’s actually more dangerous now to cling to (potentially false) conceptions of safety and stability instead of seeking out new opportunities.

I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to overcome this tendency towards risk aversion. These software bugs are all part of what Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman would call System 1, or automatic, mental operations. They aren’t conscious, so they play out without our rational (or System 2) input. Because of their stealth and their strength, these psychological forces are a perfect storm against change. Is it any wonder that we are inclined to cling so stubbornly to keeping things the same?

Making a shift can be hard but standing pat is so easy

It’s easy not to notice this tendency and even easier to do nothing about it.

First, we’re plagued by the fact that there is a default setting inherent to the choices we face: not taking any action at all is always an option. Second, all changes involve some risk. Whether it’s as mundane as changing up your usual Starbucks order (easy there, tiger!) or as monumental as considering a change of city, one will have to deal with doubts, costs, and possibly even regret as a result.

We fear uncertainty as a matter of course, and in a head-to-head dance-off with what we know, “I think that I’ll keep doing the same” always wins. Not changing anything is, in many ways, the easiest option imaginable. On the contrary, injecting variety into your life requires not just imagination but courage as well.

We’re looking at this all wrong

Third, we make an additional but fundamental error in assuming that the choice between sticking with what we’ve got and trying something else is akin to comparing a sure thing with a risky bet. Nothing could be further from the truth. Standing pat isn’t always safe, and changing it up isn’t always a gamble. But if we frame the choices in those terms, we will always gravitate towards keeping things just as they are. Think about it: if given the choice between options, almost everyone chooses the “sure thing”. In fact, it’s helpful to look at this phenomenon as a form of human physics: status quo bias acts like gravity to keep us stuck firmly in place.

Talking about this thinking trap is so important precisely because we aren’t generally aware of it and therefore don’t think about it. Status quo bias is a tremendously powerful influence on our lives, and yet we are largely oblivious to its effects.

Everybody’s doing it

Now before you beat yourself up about how stupid we are, take solace in the sad reality that this is actually a very widespread problem. In fact, we find this bias not just in people, but also in animals, companies, and even countries.

Some species of sea turtles migrate all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs in South America after mating on the West Coast of Africa. Why do they undertake this herculean marathon? Because when the behavior started some 100 million years ago, the two continents were close together and there was just a narrow strait separating the two. Despite the fact that each year the traverse got just a bit longer — perhaps only inches at a time — it was so gradual that they didn’t pay attention; eventually, their descendants were literally crossing an ocean because they couldn’t be bothered to switch things up. Lest you think that this is just a turtle thing, other studies have shown that primates like chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos also display examples of loss aversion and the endowment effect. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins was right: despite all our rage, we’re all just rats in a cage.

Companies are no better than homo sapiens and sea turtles in this regard; their stubbornness vis a vis change is confounding, too. Consider Blockbuster, the now-bankrupt video rental company. Not only did they completely ignore the threat of Netflix in the 1990s (first as a DVD by mail business, and then as a streaming video service); they also passed on an offer made by CEO Reed Hastings in 2000 to sell to them for the measly sum of $50 million. While this “epic fail” will go down in infamy (along with the Decca Records executive who turned down an up and coming Liverpudlian band because “guitar music was going out of style” and missed out on being the manager of the Beatles), the larger narrative is not just one of failure but of resisting change — especially a positive one.

Finally, countries fall into the inertia trap as well. The terrible school shooting tragedy last year at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school is a particularly tragic case in point. The massacre that killed 17 happened almost 19 years to the day after the Columbine massacre of April 1999. Not only are these two events linked as shocking bookends to an unbroken series of school shootings; it marked a particularly grim milestone. The Stoneman Douglas victims were also the first teenagers to spend their entire lives under the shadow of the Columbine carnage. Despite an entire generation of kids growing up with the reality and fear of active shooter situations (More than 187,000 U.S. students have been exposed to gun violence at school since the Columbine massacre in 1999), no significant legislation has been passed to make such incidents less likely or less lethal. In this case, keeping the status quo is literally deadly.

The price is not right

This deep-seated tendency we exhibit individually and collectively is all the more frustrating because we miss out on a lot as a result. As the examples above attest, it would clearly have been better for the sea turtles, Blockbuster employees, and American high school students if complacency hadn’t carried the day. But the larger truth is that this is actually often the case. If people and organizations were willing to take chances, they would see their willingness to take risks rewarded.

We show a strong preference for inaction even if those current situations are no longer the best ones for you and aren’t the best options available to you. In other words, change is often optimal and stasis is sub-optimal. Yet because we fear losses and dread uncertainty so strongly, we are willing to accept a steep price — not pursuing the real possibility of something better — to avoid it.

This is where another useful but complicated economic concept comes in handy: the notion of opportunity costs. Every choice we face has direct and indirect consequences. The first category is obvious, but the second is worth exploring. When we decide to do something, we ought to factor in the alternative options foregone through our choice to stand pat.

We all understand why it’s hard to exit a good situation — what I call the pleasant present. But what if the other option is even better? And more to the point, why do we persist in staying in less-than-pleasant situations?

Do you know anyone who has ever stayed too long in a bad relationship even though they knew it wasn’t working out? We all do. People are so afraid to make a switch that they choose “the devil they know” to the one they don’t. In effect, these people choose unhappiness over uncertainty.

And yet, what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. Albert Einstein famously observed that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Our predisposition towards the status quo is crazy, in that regard. We persist in staying put in good situations and bad, passing on opportunities for growth but also ones that would relieve ourselves of suffering.

Complacency is a curse, but it’s especially dangerous today

We live in an era where economic, technological, and societal transformations are accelerating. Military thinkers have dubbed this the VUCA world — one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

The issue is this: in rapidly changing times, the status quo is less safe than ever before and much less certain to be sustainable. Whether you’re an employee, an entrepreneur, or an executive, your environment is constantly changing. Your employer could close your company at short notice; your business could draw a disruptive competitor, or your country could start a trade war and the tariffs that get slapped on your products effectively put you out of business. In all these scenarios, the riskiest thing is to take no risks and assume “steady as she goes” is the right strategy. In fact, futurist thinkers argue that “risk over safety” should be one of the guiding 21st-century principles. I totally agree, but the real challenge is how we operationalize this idea.

Here are 7 strategies to adopt that future-friendly philosophy and overcome the biggest mental block we don’t even realize we have.

1. Get Smarter: Become aware of your brain bugs but don’t stop there

Knowing about all of the ways our instincts lock us into sub-optimal behaviors is a good start, but it’s not sufficient to short-circuiting them. These are hardwired tendencies that operate on a largely unconscious level. So we also have to set up processes to actively short-circuit and counteract them.

2. Flip the Script: Reframe your view of risk and change

Shaking things up is often better than what we’re doing right now, and yet our minds are closed to that possibility. It’s more helpful — and more accurate — to think that variety can bring gains while standing still could produce losses. This is objectively true, even though it seems totally counter-intuitive to most of us. We must learn to see the world this way if we’re going to overcome the gravitational pull of status quo bias.

We are naturally risk-averse creatures. But when we realize that sticking with the pleasant present has risks too, then it becomes safer to choose change. In effect, we have to reverse the way we do our mental accounting and frame the choice as one between progress or decay.

3. Exploration has to become the default setting

It’s not enough to alter our mindset; we also have to develop a proactive bias for action and exploration. When in doubt, opt-out — of inertia, but also of routine. Just as important, under this new philosophy of boldness we should have to justify staying put and standing pat. So instead of constructing an argument for novelty, the new you will have to make a case for not changing — and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

4. Replace Status Quo with Venture Go!

We wrongly associate the status quo with something that is stable, safe, and at least moderately successful (if it’s not broken, don’t fix it). But it’s anything but secure and is it’s often sub-optimal. Instead, we need to start associating standing still with stagnation.

Variety is seen in the opposite light of stability. It’s regarded as risky, uncertain, perhaps even slightly dangerous, or irresponsible. But not all people or industries look at change this way. Inventors and innovators look at the status quo and see something missing. They spot opportunity in stasis and try to exploit it. They experiment constantly. In coming up with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Steve Jobs personified what RFK put so eloquently: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

Venture capitalists look at risk in a positive and productive (not to mention profitable) way. Even the word venture conjures up a different feeling about change. They don’t call it “Risk Capital” for a reason (though that’s how it’s translated in French, ironically).

Venture conjures up concepts like excitement, opportunity, adventure. Seen in this light, it’s not risky — it actually aligns more with advancement, innovation, and transformation. Let’s adopt this more positive frame about change. The next time you think of keeping the status quo, pull a George Constanza and consider doing the opposite: think “Venture Go!”

Rewiring the way we think about this problem is only the first step. Here are some concrete actions to walk the talk.

5. Start small: Exercise your explorer muscles by experimenting every day

Just as you get habituated to a routine, you can also make a habit out of shaking things up. Take a different route to your usual lunch restaurant, or (gasp!) try something that you’ve never had there. Buy a magazine you’ve never picked up before. Make surprise and small-scale spontaneity a regular part of your day and week. You might be shocked to discover lots of new little pleasures that have been hiding in plain sight all along.

The willingness to take small risks, to explore and experiment is like a muscle — you can build it up with practice. But like our bodies, those that can also atrophy from disuse. So use it or lose it.

For big changes, we’re going to need a bigger knife (as Crocodile Dundee once said). When you’re contemplating moving to California, you can’t use the same thinking tools that you use for switching up your brand of ice mocha.

6. Turn the lights on: Fear Setting and Pre-Mortem Analysis

Most of the time, we worry more than we should. Mark Twain famously remarked that “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.”

One way to counteract this tendency is to face our fears directly. Tim Ferriss has an excellent framework called “Fear Setting” that accomplishes just that. Another angle is to conduct a pre-mortem on whatever decision you’re thinking of making. This consists of imagining that you made that choice and it all went terribly wrong but exploring all the ways in which it could. In this way, you forecast potential problems and anticipate how to address them before they have happened. In effect, this thought exercise exorcizes the fear of failure and ruin.

7. Don’t be a gambler; think like a trader and act like an investor

Finally, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that we all become foolish gamblers instead of being stuck in a stagnant status quo. A gamble is, by definition, a risky bet where the risk-reward ratio is skewed. Playing the slot machines is a (stupid) gamble; betting that the stock of the company you researched meticulously is a speculative investment. There’s a difference.

I sometimes use this frame to figure if I’m making a smart bet: I ask myself where my current situation fits in Linger | Wander | Venture continuum. When we linger in a place or space, we’ve been there too long. If we leave without a plan and without arming ourselves with a strategy, we’re just wandering. But the gangster move is to adopt the investor’s mentality and to regularly take intelligent risks — in other words, be a venture activist rather than a venture capitalist.

Conclusion

This is hard, I know. I’m perhaps the most routine-loving person on the planet, so this is advice that I struggle to act on personally in almost every way. But that means that if I can learn to do this more often, anyone can.

Change your view of change. Try to associate staying put with stagnation, and venture with adventure.

Start small. Build up your risk-seeking muscles, and your tolerance for the uncertainty with symbolic leaps of faith first. Experiment a little every day.

Over time, your courage to take chances will be rewarded, and the new dynamic will be reinforced.

If you get past all of the fear of uncertainty, this risk-embracing approach makes a lot of sense. The signature moments and critical inflection points of our lives are almost always defined more by change rather than by continuity. Do you remember the Saturday that was like every other Saturday, or the one that stood out for being different? Do you remember Year 6 in a certain city or the first few days after moving to a new one?

Both change and continuity are good — but only if there is an organic balance between the two. Our hunter-gatherer instincts induce us to avoid risk and therefore miss out on opportunities, and we need to consciously and intentionally override those inclinations. Just as we are predisposed to over-indulge in sugar, salt, and fat, so too are we susceptible to the status quo bias.

The world is bigger, diverse, and richer in potential experiences and pleasures than we realize. Don’t be limited by the narrow view our hard-wiring imposes on us. Escape the gravitational pull of status quo bias, and let yourself be tempted towards the random and the seemingly risky. If you’ve thought seriously about changing something in your life, you probably should have already done it …

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Ion Valis

I share the best insights from science, strategy, and philosophy to help people perform, transform, and flourish. | www.IonValis.com