Opposing changes for irrational reasons: the status quo bias

Status quo bias is a bias that causes people to have a preference for the current state of affairs or make a judgement that the current state of affairs is best, simply because it is the current state of affairs. Someone who, without good reason, insists we should maintain the current state of affairs is displaying this bias.

Why is this attitude a bias? We can show this in a very simple way. How can we assess whether a certain change in the way things are might be good or bad? We can compare how things are now and estimate how good or bad the resulting situation would be if that change occurs. However, the status quo bias prevents us from assessing things in this way. It gives an unwarranted advantage to certain states of affairs over others simply for being the actual current states of affairs. This hinders people from evaluating potential changes on their own merits as alternatives to the status quo. Maintaining the status quo also requires less effort than calling for and generating change, and that may be a big part of why the alternative of “doing nothing” is so common.

Status quo bias can be broken down into, and perhaps fully explained by, many other biases, including social conformity and loss aversion (people focus more on what they stand to lose rather than how they might benefit), among others.1

There are also many underlying psychological mechanisms at play that cause us to display a status quo bias. Some of these include:2

Accessibility: People have a longer history and more experience with existing states than with alternatives, and as a result the existing states will be more accessible in memory. This greater accessibility of the status quo makes people more likely to judge it as preferable to alternatives because it seems more “normal.”

Primacy effects: The first possibility considered is typically remembered best and is typically preferred. Because the status quo is by definition the current situation, it will be favored in this way.

Anchoring: People tend to give more weight to the first piece of information they have about something, and because the status quo situation comes first, it is likely to serve as the starting point (an anchor) from which people might or might not move.

Cognitive reference points: To make comparisons, it is first necessary to imagine a referent to which the alternatives can be compared. Generally a reference point is chosen based on familiarity, anteriority (what comes earlier), and frequency of exposure. This tends to make the status quo a very likely reference point for comparison, because it is the situation we are more likely to have considered first, to be more familiar with, and be more frequently exposed to.

Feature-positive effect: Alternatives to the status quo are hypothetical and therefore lack the salience that the status quo has.

 

Consequences of the status quo bias for animals

When it comes to nonhuman animals, the status quo bias contributes to maintaining the present in which the interests of humans are seen as having higher priority than equally important interests of nonhuman animals. This makes the status quo attractive for many people because, in order to change the way things work, they would have to give up their position of power and certain benefits they receive from disregarding the interests of animals. This reinforces the status quo bias and facilitates the spread of the belief in comforting ideas based on fallacies and ideologically biased justifications.

There are several specific examples of how the status quo bias has awful consequences for nonhuman animals. Given that speciesist attitudes and lack of concern for nonhuman beings are prevalent today, this bias can only reinforce such attitudes. Also, in the case of animal exploitation, it contributes to the behaviors that lead to the continued exploitation of animals and resistance towards changing these practices. This happens in particular when it comes to their use for food, which is often defended with the claim that it has “always” taken place.

In the case of animals in the wild, this bias reinforces the idea that their situation is good, and that any change in that situation would be bad. This view persists despite the available evidence that shows there are many ways in which they suffer substantially. Harmful weather conditions, parasites, diseases, and starvation are some of the harms they suffer every day and which cause very short life expectancies.

 

Why defenses of the status quo bias do not work

Someone could object here that in particular cases, there are reasons for favoring the status quo. For example, it may appear that the current state of affairs was rationally decided upon or there may be transaction costs (including time) to changing it that appear to be greater than the benefits.3 Therefore, they could argue, favoring the status quo could be thought of as a heuristic, that is, a simple cognitive shortcut that helps us quickly and easily understand a situation and act accordingly.

One response to this is that there are almost always ways in which the present situation could be improved. The status quo bias, however, impedes us from seeing this and acting accordingly. So, if we think of favoring the status quo as a heuristic that can be used in some very specific cases, then the status quo bias describes the inappropriate application of this heuristic, which happens in most cases.

Moreover, it is important to be aware that in most cases the current situation is far from being good. The status quo bias is a serious obstacle to improving an existing situation and can lead to terrible consequences. This bias can be comforting because it does not require us to challenge ourselves, and it minimizes the risks associated with change. Yet it causes people to miss out on potential benefits that might outweigh the risks.

In addition, there can be cases where this bias leads to confusion when certain courses of action are taken to maintain the status quo, even though it is not clear what the status quo is. For example, it might depend on the time frame we are looking at. This happens with many interventions in the wild that are done not to help animals, but to maintain situations which are actually harming them. For example, the reintroduction of wolves to certain areas can be framed as either a return to the status quo or as a change to the status quo. Wolves were formerly in many regions but have been extinct there for many years.4 So the answer depends on the time frame used. The same is true of the killing of wild horses in areas where they have been absent for thousands of years, such as North America, but where they were present before. The fact that the status quo bias is arbitrary in this way is another indication that we should not trust it.

 

Assessing whether we are biased towards the status quo: The reversal test

The reversal test is a proposed method for determining when someone is displaying status quo bias in a certain type of situation. It can be used to evaluate decisions related to a change that will affect the level of a parameter.5 The reversal test proceeds as follows. Suppose there are only two directions in which a parameter can be changed. If we reject interventions to change it in one direction, we then ask if we should instead change it in the other direction. If we also reject doing this, we should be able to provide an explanation of why we believe changes to the parameter in either direction seems to be bad. If we are unable to provide any relevant explanation, then what we are rejecting is simply any change to the current situation. That is, we are assuming that there is something special about the fact that something is the case right now that makes it more valuable, despite the unlikelihood of the current situation being the optimal one. But this, as we have seen, is just a bias. So the reversal test can be useful in making sure we don’t suffer from the status quo bias, as well as for testing others for it. Note that the status quo bias often comes in a cluster of biases, so it may not be as simple to identify it as this description makes it appear.

The reasoning behind the reversal test is that it is very unlikely that the current levels we have of something also happen to be the best levels of them. So, if changing the levels of that thing in one direction is not good, and we don’t have reasons why changing it in the opposite direction would be bad, then we can expect that changing it in the opposite direction would indeed be good.6

 

Perverse effects of the status quo bias in practice

Many people might not accept practices of animal exploitation if they were not already common. But since exploiting animals is the norm, these people will typically still support these practices without thinking too much about it. Applying the reversal test in this case, we might expect that many people would be against introducing various kinds of animal exploitation if they were not already practiced. This is because these practices represent inflicting a massive amount of suffering when easy alternatives exist. The current acceptance of these practices may be due to status quo bias and the felt need to justify a practice one is complicit in.

Status quo bias is an extra impediment to any sort of social change. If people have a tendency to think the present situation is good, they may not want to change it even when things could be much better. In order to mitigate or perhaps reverse the bias in those we are trying to convince, it may be effective to frame an intervention as normal or point out that it is already taking place.

Some people have this bias when they consider the need to change the current situation of animals who are used by humans. But status quo bias is even more problematic when it impacts our decisions about helping animals living in the wild. Most wild animals face huge amounts of physical suffering and psychological stress, as well as the possibility of an agonizing death.7 Despite this, at some level many people find this not only acceptable but view it as something we should not change.8 Their views about this may be influenced by other beliefs or biases they have, such as believing that what is natural is automatically good, or believing that we won’t be able to avoid doing more harm than good when intervening in complex systems. They may also fail to recognize how big the problem really is, or that the number of nonhuman animals in the wild is vastly larger than the number of nonhuman animals in farms or laboratories. But failing to even try to address these problems is likely a manifestation of status quo bias.

It is possible to do a sort of reversal test with regard to this question. We can ask, if nonhuman animals were not faced with such an agonizing and purposeless struggle with each other and with the environment, would we want to place them into that state? Or we can ask, if nonhuman animals did not exist, would we want them to exist if we knew they would suffer and die prematurely? If the answer is no, then shouldn’t we explore the possibilities to make things better for them?


Further readings

Bruers, S. (2016) “In search of moral illusions”, The Journal of Value Inquiry, 50, pp. 283-303.

Bruers, S. (2020) “Exploiting the cognitive biases of altruists”, Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist, januari 4 [accessed on 30 July 2020].

Davidow, B. (2013) “Why most people don’t care about wild-animal suffering”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, 11 Nov [accessed on 25 June 2020].

Dean, M.; Kıbrıs, Ö. & Masatlioglu, Y. (2017) “Limited attention and status quo bias”, Journal of Economic Theory, 169, pp. 93-127.

Eidelman, S. & Crandall, C. (2012) “Bias in favor of the status quo”, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6, pp. 270-281.

Fernandez, R. & Rodrik, D. (1991) “Resistance to reform: Status quo bias in the presence of individual-specific uncertainty”, The American Economic Review, 81, pp. 1146-1155.

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, pp. 6005-6009 [accessed on 22 June 2020].

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow, London: Macmillan.

Reese, J. (2020 [2017]) “Survey of US attitudes towards animal farming and animal-free food”, Sentience Institute, May 17.

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

Sittler-Adamczewski, T. (2016) “Consistent vegetarianism and the suffering of wild animals”, Journal of Practical Ethics, 4 (2), pp. 94-102 [accessed on 13 June 2020].

Vinding, M. (2020) “Ten biases against prioritizing wild-animal suffering”, Magnus Vinding, 2020/07/02 [accessed on 2 August 2020].


Notes

1 Other biases that may contribute to the status quo bias are the omission bias, the ambiguity effect, existence bias, the mere exposure effect, and the endowment effect. See about this: Jost, J. T.; Kay, A. C. & Thorisdottir, H. (eds.) (2009) Social and psychological bases of ideology and system justification, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Kahneman, D.; Knetsch, J. L. & Thaler, R. H. (1991) “Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5 (1), pp. 193-206 [accessed on 22 July 2020]; Ritov, I. & Baron, J. (1992) “Status-quo and omission biases”, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5, pp. 49-61; Tetlock, P. E. & Boettger, R. (1994) “Accountability amplifies the status quo effect when change creates victims”, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 7, pp. 1-23.

2 Eidelman, S. & Crandall, C. S. (2009) “A psychological advantage for the status quo”, in Jost, J. T.; Kay, A. C. & Thorisdottir, H. (eds.) Social and psychological bases of ideology and system justification, op. cit., pp. 85-106.

3 Bostrom, N. & Ord, T. (2006) “The reversal test: Eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics”, Ethics, 116, pp. 656-679.

4 Ericsson, G. & Heberlein, T. A. (2003) “Attitudes of hunters, locals, and the general public in Sweden now that the wolves are back”, Biological Conservation, 111, pp. 149-159.

5 Bostrom, N. & Ord, T. (2006) “The reversal test: Eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics”, op. cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 3 May 2020]; Soryl, A. A. (2019) Establishing the moral significance of wild animal welfare and considering practical methods of intervention, Master’s thesis, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam; Torres, M. (2015) “The case for intervention in nature on behalf of animals: A critical review of the main arguments against intervention”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 33-49 [accessed on 14 October 2019].

8 Horta, O. (2010) “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: Population dynamics and suffering in the wild”, Télos, 17 (1), pp. 73-88 [accessed on 15 July 2020].

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