What’s your normal? The dangers of status quo bias at work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Overcoming status quo bias involves understanding its influence in the workplace.

When, in the 1980s, Coca-Cola decided to update its classic formula with New Coke, all seemed set fair for a new generation of American soda. Blind taste tests were positive; the full might of Coca-Cola’s marketing was thrown behind it. Yet, when consumers were given the opportunity to choose which Coke to buy, they chose Coke Classic. New Coke was ultimately discontinued in 1992. 

As humans, it does seem that we tend towards the familiar, the tried and tested, what we consider to be ‘normal’. When faced with decisions, having to make a choice between conflicting options, our default is often to play it safe.

Perhaps that’s why Coca-Cola’s grand experiment with New Coke was doomed. Or why, to take an example from the world of business, the catchphrase “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” was so powerful for so long. Opting for the safe, well-known option carried the implication that, if something went wrong, we ordinary mortals couldn’t be blamed. If, on the other hand, we had gone out on a limb and chosen a less well-known brand, the risk – and blame – would be more likely to fall on us when the IT system crashed. 

Better the devil you know?

Sticking with what we know or like may be entirely rational, the product of a careful weighing up of options before the decision is made. But, more often than not, it’s entirely irrational, leading us to ignore evidence or reject options for choices that might actually benefit us, whether that a better-tasting version of Coke or a more diverse workforce.

That’s status quo bias and that’s why it’s potentially so damaging. Unsurprisingly, it interacts with a range of psychological principles:

  • It’s related to loss aversion, the principle that the potential for loss weighs greater than the potential for gain.
  • It’s been associated with regret avoidance, the reason why we so often choose a lunchtime sandwich we’ve eaten before, lest we’re disappointed when a different sandwich doesn’t quite come up to scratch. 
  • Through sunk cost fallacy, the more we invest in the status quo, the more likely we are to continue to invest in the status quo.
  • Because of the mere exposure effect, we tend to prefer something we’ve been exposed to before. 
  • We may want to avoid cognitive dissonance, those inconsistent and often uncomfortable thoughts that may come with the conflict inherent in competing options. 

When we consider these factors, it begins to make sense that incumbent candidates are more likely to win political elections than their less well-known challengers (better the devil you know) or that there’s a tendency, if we’re not careful, to recruit colleagues who look and feel just like us. 

Why do we tend towards bias? 

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s concept of fast and slow thinking offers insight into why cognitive biases, such as status quo bias, are so common and so difficult to overcome. His fast System 1 thinking is our default thinking mode, automatic and intuitive. In contrast, slow System 2 thinking is more deliberate and effortful, more complex and controlled.

Unsurprisingly, given the thousands of decisions we need to make every day, System 1 thinking is in charge most of the time, protecting us from the cognitive strain of having to slow down and think something through using System 2. 

But these cognitive shortcuts also come at a cost. System 1 thinking is more impulsive, more emotional, more optimistic and leads us to follow our first impressions, often despite evidence to the contrary. Kahneman gives the example of a person remodelling their kitchen. Despite overwhelming evidence that most people under-budget the likely cost, we still believe that, for us, the outcome will be different. System 1 thinking does not apply previous knowledge with any degree of reliability. 

In essence, then, our default System 1 thinking makes us less rational and far less correct in our thinking than we’d like to give ourselves credit for. And because of this, it also brings with it a great deal of built-in prejudice. We all have stereotypes about different social groups, and when confronting these stereotypes, we need System 2 in control to help us modify our initial, knee-jerk reactions. It’s certainly possible for us to reduce the impact of bias on our thinking; it takes what Kahneman calls a process of self-critique or quality control. But, because this takes mental effort, it’s hard. Given the choice, it’s easy to see why, often, we never bother or give up and default to the status quo. 

How and why does status quo bias impact on our workplaces? 

In his book, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, adman Rory Sutherland makes a case for seeing status quo bias as the prism through which we might identify and challenge a lack of workplace diversity. He quotes a study reported in Harvard Business Review which suggests that, when it comes to diversity, it’s our bias against the unfamiliar, the square peg who might upset the status quo, that’s at the root of workplaces stuffed with people who look and think the same way. 

The researchers looked at the effect the number of women or non-white candidates on a shortlist had on a university’s hiring decision. When there was only one woman on a shortlist of four, her chance of getting hired was zero; when there were two, her chances rose to 50%. They concluded that a lone woman on the shortlist tended to highlight how different she is from the norm – triggering the status quo bias that made recruiting that woman a seemingly riskier proposition. But adding another woman to the shortlist created a new status quo, making recruiting a woman less of a threat to what was considered normal. It suggests that the prejudice we apply to a lone woman might be a prejudice applied to a lone anyone. 

For Sutherland, if this is true, then we may not be casting the net wide enough when it comes to workplace diversity. Our challenge may not be so immediately obvious as a straightforward focus on disadvantaged groups such as women or people from minority backgrounds, important as these are. We may instead need to dig deeper to find out what the real status quo is. In many creative industries for example, there is undoubtedly a bias towards hiring physically attractive people. In other industries, older people or introverts are at an unfair disadvantage. Class is another obvious factor: we shouldn’t be overly self-congratulatory for hiring a particular quota of women, for example, if their only real diversity that’s more than skin deep is that they all went to different Oxbridge colleges. 

We can all rehearse the ethical and commercial arguments in favour of diversity of thought, but perhaps status quo bias challenges us to wonder if what we mean by diversity isn’t always as clear-cut as we think it is. And is also a lot less simple to fix. For example, it may be more entrenched in larger organisations than in smaller ones, where one or two new hires might more easily change the dynamics at play. Just as those techies stuck with IBM as the safe option, probably for longer than was wise, then, as Sutherland says, “the less eccentric your hire, the less blame you are exposed to if something goes wrong”. The alternative might just be too difficult to contemplate. 

Maybe we could all do with a healthy dose of Kahneman’s more considered System 2 thinking when it comes to overcoming bias at work. 

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