Social psychology has offered up several explanations as to why status quo bias occurs. It is consistent with the concepts of loss aversion and regret avoidance, both of which have been shown to influence decision-making. Furthermore, status quo bias has been maintained because it facilitates decision-making, especially when we are uncertain of what to do or feel overwhelmed by the number of options we are presented with.
Loss aversion and regret avoidance
Loss aversion is a concept in behavioral economics that refers to how the psychological pain we experience upon a loss is greater than the pleasure we experience from a gain of the same magnitude. This can impair our decision-making capabilities by preventing us from selecting the most advantageous option out of fear of failure.
When making a decision where we must choose between the default option and its alternatives, we treat the status quo as a reference point, or baseline. The status quo is familiar; we know what to expect from it. To choose the alternative, on the other hand, would be to take a risk. That’s where loss aversion comes into play. When considering the alternative option, we assign greater weight to the potential losses it could result in than we do to its potential gains. As such, we are biased in favor of the status quo, and inclined to stick with it over selecting the alternative.3
Regret avoidance is a related concept, which posits that we tend to be more regretful of negative consequences resulting from an action than we are of similar consequences resulting from inaction.4 This contributes to status quo bias as it reinforces the notion that adhering to the status quo is the safe thing to do, as it is less likely to lead to strong feelings of regret.
Often, we consider deviating from the status quo to be a risk. We may be unwilling to make a risky decision because we are worried about the potential losses or negative outcomes. However, we do not give equal consideration to the possibility that choosing the alternative option might lead to far more favorable outcomes.
Decision-making can be overwhelming
Although status quo bias can cause us to make poor decisions, there is a reason why we continue to resort to it. When faced with a choice, it is not always obvious what the correct decision is. Status quo bias gives us something to fall back on at times when we feel overwhelmed.
Early research on status quo bias showed that the influence of this bias is positively correlated with the number of options in the choice set.5 Put simply, as the number of options we have to choose between increases, the more likely it becomes that we will engage in status quo bias. This has been linked to the concept of choice overload, which asserts that larger choice sets lead us to make worse decisions.6 In fact, some would argue that status quo bias does not qualify as decision-making at all; some researchers have classified this bias as a form of decision avoidance.7 When we give a large choice set to choose from and are uncertain of which option is best, choosing to default option may be a way for us to escape the stress of having to make a decision.
This is not a good strategy for rational decision-making however, it can be useful when making mundane decisions. For example, when having to choose between multiple different kinds of bread at the grocery story. It’s far easier to choose the same loaf you always get, rather than inspect every single option. Not only does this save you time, but it also frees up mental resources, allowing you to dedicate them to other, more important decisions. The time spent weighing your various options is referred to as deliberation costs. It has been given as a reason why, in some cases, status quo bias may not always be maladaptive.8