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Status Quo Bias: The Power of the “Devil You Know”

minute read

Quick Definition: Status Quo Bias says that people prefer to keep things they way they are, because they don’t want to run the risk that the new strategy might fail.

Have you ever worked for a company where all your new ideas were shot down?
It probably wasn't because people didn't like your ideas. 

They were fearful of these new ideas - knowingly or not. They were used to the way things were - the status quo - and didn't like the idea of having to change (no matter how good the idea).

What is Status Quo Bias?

“To do nothing is within the power of all men.” — Samuel Johnson

Status Quo Bias says that people don’t like to change the way things are because they don’t want to run the risk that the new way of working might fail. 

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” then you know exactly the mentality that Status Quo Bias is describing. 

The Science Behind Status Quo Bias

Coined by researchers William Sameulson (Boston University) and Richard Zeckhauser (Harvard University) in 1988, they tested for Status Quo bias using a series of experiments

One of these experiments asked 486 students which of the following financial investments they’d prefer: 

  • Retaining an investment in a moderate-risk company.
  • Investing in a high-risk company. 
  • Invest in treasury bills. 
  • Invest in municipal bonds. 

The researchers wanted to see how students would react to the Status Quo choice (retaining an investment). 

They found that even after rewording or moving selections around, students still gravitated to the Status Quo investment — preferring the moderate risk of the “devil they knew” to the potentially higher gains to be had from the other investments. 

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Real-World Examples of Status Quo Bias

Our preference for the status quo can be seen in many business and day-to-day scenarios. For example: 

  • Customers have a negative knee-jerk reaction to new formulations of old products they love and enjoy. The failure of New Coke is partially down to Status Quo Bias and peoples’ reluctance to switch to new products.
  • The difficulty of introducing new ideas or ways of working into an organization. Managers might see the potential upside of new approaches, but if the status quo is working (and even sometimes, if it’s not), they’d rather stick with the “Devil they know” than deviate from the norm.
  • The relative ease with which incumbent candidates win elections. In many congressional districts, older candidates that have been in office for decades often win because people are used to seeing their names on the ballot and on the news. Voters might not be happy with the status quo, but they don’t want to take a risk on electing someone new. 

The Bottom Line

Status Quo Bias isn’t really about how much we love what we know. It’s about reducing our exposure to risk — another quirk of human behavior known as Loss Aversion.

Status Quo bias can also explain why we tend to stick to default choices — we want to reduce our exposure to risk by doing something we’ve never done before.

To outmaneuver Status Quo Bias, don’t spend too much time discussing how different a new idea is. Instead, frame it as similar to what you’re doing now, with just a tiny twist. 

Timberland — known for their boots — did this with an ad for when they introduced sandals: 

And Steve Jobs did it when he introduced the iPhone by calling it a combination of an iPod, a phone, and an internet browser (three technologies that everyone at the time was familiar with). 

About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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