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The status quo, please

In 1988, William Samuelson (Boston University) and Richard Zeckhauser (Harvard University) published a seminal paper called, Status Quo Bias in Decision Making.

In one of the experiments cited in the paper, two groups of people are given a hypothetical task that involves picking from a selection of different investment opportunities.

In both cases, the groups are told that they are someone who regularly reads the “financial pages”, but that up until recently hasn’t had much money to invest.

Both groups are then told that they have just inherited “a large sum of money” from their great-uncle. This is now where the groups diverge in terms of the information given.

The first group is given a neutral version. They are told they can invest in any of the following portfolios: a moderate-risk company, a high-risk company, treasury bills, or municipal bonds.

The second group is given the same selection of portfolios, but is also given a “status quo selection.” They are told that a significant portion of their great-uncle’s portfolio is currently invested in a moderate risk company. 

(They are also told that the fees associated with an investment change are insignificant and should not be a consideration for this decision.)

What do you think happened?

A number of different scenarios were tested, but as soon as one of the options was presented as the status quo, it became “significantly more popular”.

This status quo advantage also tended to increase as the number of investment options increased. Perhaps people just got overwhelmed by the options and went with the “safe bet”.

This phenomenon has become known as the status quo bias. 

It is one of the reasons why some political offices have term limits. The incumbent bias can make for an uneven playing field. People vote for the name they recognize on the ballot.

And it is one of the reasons why change, in general, can be so unsettling. The countless studies suggest we have an inherent bias towards the status quo irrespective of its objective merits.

P.S. This is what came to mind as soon as I heard people calling the King Street Transit Pilot a “disaster” before the first weekday of its run was even over.

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