The Causes of Human Rights Violations (38): Status Quo Bias

Status quo bias is an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, even when there are no obvious reasons why this state of affairs should be preferred over possible and knowable alternatives.

A preference for the status quo is not always a bias and can be entirely rational in some cases:

  • when the balance of costs and gains is in favor of the status quo and when all possible and knowable alternatives yield a lower balance
  • when some alternative yields a higher balance but the transition cost is too high
  • when your role in society requires that you are consistent (you’re a school teacher and you’re supposed to teach the canon, or a judge and precedent and predictability are important)
  • etc.

When a preference for the status quo is a form of reasonable risk avoidance, then it’s also wrong to call it a bias: it’s true that sticking with what worked in the past is a safe option when the consequences or costs of alternatives – compared to the cost of existing arrangements – are uncertain or unknowable.

However, people also tend to stick with proven options when the respective costs of different options are clear and an alternative is less costly than the status quo. We sometimes even prefer the status quo when costs aren’t an issue at all. In those cases, it’s correct to call our preferences a bias. Maybe the bias occurs because people don’t want to invest the effort of looking for alternatives and calculating all the costs. Status quo requires no mental effort. Choice is difficult, hence the tendency to do nothing. Or maybe cost calculations – when they are performed – are distorted because people wrongly attribute goodness to longevity. People often believe that something must be worth something if it has existed or if it has been practiced for a long time.

Cost calculations can also be biased because people tend to weigh the potential losses of switching from the status quo more heavily than the potential gains. This is called loss aversion – people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains even if the gains objectively outweigh the losses – and it could explain a preference for the status quo in the presence of alternatives that are objectively less costly. But status quo bias occurs even when there are no losses or gains from alternatives (experiments have shown that just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly). Hence, status quo bias is not always a form of loss aversion. Maybe regret avoidance plays a role (a past experience of regret teaches people to avoid decisions that imply change). Or an overvaluation of the virtue of consistency. Or the sunk cost fallacy: American involvement in Vietnam continued for years despite massive loss of lives, precisely because this loss would make defeat costly.

This last example shows how status quo bias can cause human rights violations. Other examples:

  • The use of precedent in judicial decisions even if those decisions violate human rights (overvaluing consistency).
  • Female genital mutilation often has no other justification than the fact that it has been practiced a long time, that it’s traditional (overvaluing longevity) and that abandoning it would cause disaster.

Something on the related endowment effect is here. More posts in this series are here.


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