The Status Quo Bias

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
The status quo bias represents our preference to maintain an existing state of affairs. Or put another way, when making decisions we would often prefer to do nothing, and leave things the way they are. Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988) performed four studies that demonstrated the status quo bias, and concluded that loss aversion and the endowment effect are possible explanations (potentially defining the status quo as an anchor in respect to considerations of alternative options). However, they point out that the status quo bias persists regardless of framing in terms of gains and losses. Thus, they suggest that psychological commitment through considerations of one’s self-concept may also be involved. For example, if sunk costs exist, an individual may not want to abandon those costs, even when abandoning them might lead to higher utility. Samuelson and Zeckhauser’s (1998) discussion of psychological commitment parallels many of the factors used to explain the mere ownership effect (Beggan, 1992), demonstrating the importance of considering both concepts in tandem when deriving marketing or user experience strategies. Boxall et al. (2009) provide evidence that demonstrates complexity also influences the status quo bias. The more complex/difficult a choice, the more likely an individual will choose the status quo. This finding is supported by research from Fleming et al. (2010) who examined the neural correlates of the status quo bias. Boxall et al. (2009) also found that older individuals were more likely to choose the status quo. One might expect personality to influence status quo bias as well (e.g. those who are more open to experience might be more willing to abandon the status quo), but evidence in this domain is currently limited and mixed (see the Theoretical and Managerial Implications in Bergers, 2022 for a brief discussion).

Recent research from Xiao et al. (2021) has replicated three of the four studies performed by Zeckhauser et al. (1988), and various studies and meta-analyses have demonstrated the veracity of the bias in diverse fields (Arceneaux & Nicholson, 2023; Barreiro-Hurle, 2018; Nel & Boshoff, 2020; Wu, 2016). Further, research from Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel (2010) suggests that simply telling someone that something is the status quo can set it as their reference point or anchor, and make them like the policy more. As there is substantial evidence for the status quo bias across multiple aspects of day-to-day life, it is an important concept to always keep in mind when introducing new products, services, and/or innovations that seek to motivate consumers to make a change. For example, asking consumers to try a new brand, or start using a new innovative mobile app, would both require status quo bias considerations. One helpful resource that can be used as a starting point to help deal with this potential roadblock is Godefroid et al.’s (2022) review of measuring and counteracting the status quo bias. But keep in mind, this is a context-dependent technical endeavor that may require a great deal of experimentation, especially when you attempt to launch a brand, product, or service in a highly competitive industry with existing status quos.

Note that while the status quo bias likely exists, there are times where status quo decisions may simply be rational. If you made a decision in the past (e.g. chose to subscribe to service X) you may be happy with the existing choice, or believe the costs of switching to another choice don’t outweigh the benefits. Similarly, you may be weighing the costs of uncertainty (e.g. starting a new career) against an existing status quo (the security of your current career). Further, if you are already happy with an existing brand/product/service, there may be little reason to even consider trying a new one. Thus, when formulating strategies involving a status quo, it is important to consider whether decision making will be “rational” or driven by unconscious processes like loss aversion and self-concept maintenance.

Applying The Status Quo Bias to Marketing

The first thing to always consider is whether or not a status quo bias already exists for the goods/services you provide, or for competitor goods/services. If there is a status quo bias for your goods/services, then you want to think about how you can reinforce it to generate repeat sales or continuous subscriptions. If you recognize that there is a status quo bias for your competition, you want to think about ways in which you can counteract that status quo such as reframing it as a negative, or generating a new status quo. If attracting customers is difficult because of existing status quos, you may also need to consider changing the perceptions surrounding your product/service/brand to set it apart from existing norms. For example, if you sell clothing but there are a lot of competitors, you might try to start a new fashion trend on TikTok, so that your brand becomes the status quo for this new style. It’s also extremely important that you use multiple strategies and take social norms into account when attempting to influence a status quo or create a new status quo. You have likely heard the phrase “old habits die hard.” And status quos are often reflective of existing conscious, subconscious and unconscious habits that we have formed.

Practical Examples of The Status Quo Bias

Trial Subscriptions To Create a Status Quo

If you have used streaming services between 2018 and 2023, you have likely created an account for at least one of them through a free trial. In order to compete with Netflix, a number of new streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ offered their service free for up to a year in tandem with other purchases (e.g. buy an iPad or iPhone and get 3 months of Apple TV+ free). This takes advantage of the status quo bias, by introducing the service into someone’s day to day life as a convenience. By the end of this period, it’s difficult to give up that convenience or switch to an alternative service that might be more cost-effective, so most users just start paying for the service that they have gotten used to. If you offer a service, providing it free might lead to an initial loss in profit, but can pay off overtime. In some situations, companies automatically bill for the following year, recognizing that many people just won’t bother to cancel even if they don’t like the service. But if this isn’t possible due to local laws, framing the end of service as a loss can help drive customers to re-subscribe. Similarly, you can use the word “you” in resubscription emails with phrases like “You’ve spent the last year enjoying amazing TV shows, just wait until you see what we’re introducing next.” This leverages the self-concept aspects of the status quo bias and makes users feel as though they made a good decision signing up to the service in the first place. Of course, if users didn’t use your service at all this won’t work. So if you have data, you can tailor your communications based on usage stats and demographics.

Using Preorders to Create a Status Quo

In some industries like game development, software as a service, retail, and media, you can elicit preorders or preregistrations for unreleased goods or services. This can be helpful in setting up a socially accepted status quo. For example, if you are launching a fancy new AI that solves a current issue involved with video editing, saying “join over 30,000 editors in testing our beta” will communicate to others that there is demand for the technology. This takes advantage of social norms to artificially generate an environment that is conducive to the development of status quos. You can then reinforce these social norms by informing users of other’s usage statistics. Video games often do this in early marketing by listing how many hours people have spent playing their game. When individuals see social information stating other people have made usage of a product/service their status quo, they themselves may follow suit.

Defining Choices as Status Quos through User Experience Design

Consider a sandwich shop that allows individuals to customize their sandwiches. These individuals might try a new sandwich every time they visit, as they are confronted with various choices and no convenient way to order the same sandwich they previously had (if they even remember their previous order). Now what if that sandwich shop allowed them to order through an app that saved their previous order? They might now form a habit of ordering the same sandwich, that makes them happy, and becomes the status quo. If an app isn’t available, menus in the store can provide choices for popular items instead. Your user/customer experience should be crafted to make the formation of a status quo relatively easy and convenient. You can enhance this by normalizing habit formation and status quos through advertisements. For example, if you sell coffee, your advertisements can normalize getting a coffee every day before work. Tim Hortons managed to do this with the “double double” not only creating a status quo for millions of Canadians, but defining a cultural norm in Canada. This technique isn’t limited to food or retail. Software as a service companies can provide easy solutions for industry-specific problems, that create status quos for professionals. For example, when someone wants to edit a picture, it’s socially normative to describe it as “photoshopping” their picture, even though there are now many alternative photo editing software tools. Photoshop made photo editing easy at a time when other software did not provide a similar user experience. And as a result, it became the status quo for the task.

Creating Status Quo through Network Effects for IT/Software Adoption

Wu (2016) discusses the difficulty of getting businesses to adopt new information technologies, even when it is clear that existing technologies are outdated. One solution Wu (2016) suggests for this is the use of network effects. For example, if a government were to create regulations that promote the adoption of new technologies, some companies would switch to meet those regulations. By successfully implementing the new technology, they would tacitly acknowledge the viability of the new technology. This would also create demand for new workshops, conferences, online communities, etc. As new groups join, the new technology would slowly transform into an industry status quo. And each company would internalize this. Eventually, this process would have to repeat as when a newer technology came out, the status quo bias would once again prevent adoption of it. The takeaway here is that creating a status quo or eliciting a change in an individual or company’s status quo can be a multi-faceted endeavor. Regardless of your industry, you need to consider multiple strategies to develop a status quo. And you likely need to consider the social aspects involved.

Research Example of The Status Quo Bias

Tversky & Kahneman

As research methodology involving the status quo bias is somewhat technical, please see Tversky and Kahneman (1991) for some interesting examples.

Works Cited

Arceneaux, K., & Nicholson, S. P. (2023). Anchoring political preferences: The psychological foundations of status quo bias and the boundaries of elite manipulation. Political behavior.

Barreiro-Hurle, J., Espinosa-Goded, M., Martínez-paz, J. M., & Perni, A. (2018). Choosing not to choose: A meta-analysis of status quo effects in environmental valuations using choice experiments. Economia Agraria y Recursos Naturales, 18(1), 79-109.

Beggan, J. K. (1992). On the social nature of nonsocial perception: The mere ownership effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 229-237.

Bergers, D. (2022). The status quo bias and its individual differences from a price management perspective. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 64. 102793-.

Boxall, P., Adamowicz, W. L., & Moon, A. (2009). Complexity in choice experiments: Choice of the status quo alternative and implications for welfare management. The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 53(4), 503-519.

Fleming, S. M., Thomas, C. L., & Dolan, R. J. (2010). Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(13), 6005-6009.

Godefroid, M., Plattfaut, R., & Niehaves, B. (2022). How to measure the status quo bias? A review of current literature. Management Review Quarterly, 73, 1667-1711.

Moshinsky, A., & Bar-Hillel, M. (2010). Loss aversion and status quo label bias. Social Cognition, 28(2), 191-204.

Nel, J., & Boshoff, C. (2020). Status quo bias and shoppers’ mobile website purchasing resistance. European Journal of Marketing, 54(6), 1433-1466.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1(1), 7-59.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 106(4), 1039-1061.

Wu, C. (2016). Status quo bias in information system adoption: A meta-analytic review. Online Information Review, 40(7), 998-1017.

Xiao, Q., Lam, C. S., Piara, M., & Feldman, G. (2021). Revisiting status quo bias – Replication of Samuelson and Zeckhauser (1988). Meta-Psychology, 5.

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