Status quo isn’t always the best choice

“If it ain't broke, don't fix it” is a common piece of advice, but only serves to reinforce one’s decision to follow the status quo in the face of difficult decisions, even if it goes against their own values.

On the surface, the phrase makes sense; there’s no reason to change what’s already working. However, this advice pushes people to look less critically at the systems or structures in place because they assume they are the best options. But if they really are the best options, shouldn’t challenging them lead to a defense proving just that?

What it leads to in practice is avoiding counterarguments altogether and ignores changing societal landscapes by refusing to adapt. No human system is perfect — and rejecting that reality allows issues, however small, to compound over time.

In a 2018 study conducted by Mackenzie Health ethicist Johnathan Breslin, he describes a manifestation of status quo bias called the default effect, which is the idea that “decision-makers will tend to stick with the default choice even when it conflicts with their stated preferences.” This tends to have two root causes — the status quo effect and omission bias.

An example of this is the U.S. economy. According to data tracking its political-economic system since the early 1970’s, its wages and poverty rate have stagnated, the wealth share for the top one percent has seen drastic increase whereas the bottom 50 percent saw little to no change. Further, the racial wage gap has drastically increased, undergraduate tuition has doubled and per capita healthcare spending is almost five times higher.

The status quo effect is where people stick to the status quo in an effort to minimize regret. If a negative outcome occurs from going against the current state of affairs, we are more likely to believe things would have turned out better if we had just stuck with the default, whether or not there's a logical reason to believe this is the case.

Omission bias is “the greater willingness to accept harms that arise from omissions than from actions.” People tend to feel higher moral responsibility when they feel they are the direct cause of harm than if harm occurs from them avoiding this responsibility. Breslin provided the example of a parent hesitating or refusing to vaccinate their children as they’re choosing to put their children at greater risk, rather than feel responsible in the small chance their child has an adverse outcome.

Further, in a research article titled, “Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain,” the researchers found that humans have a much greater tendency to accept the status quo when faced with difficult choices, which leads to more errors in their decision making — even if the status quo conflicts with their chosen preferences and values.

This idea can be shown in the United States’ political landscape as well. Politicians will often run on ideas of changing the U.S. for the better on the large-scale, yet rather than challenging the foundations creating the problems, they will make small tweaks within the status quo one way or the other to gain political favor, rather than solving the larger issues, which requires more difficult choices and a larger level of responsibility.

Despite the overwhelming drive to follow the status quo, it’s not impossible to fight against it, which is worth fighting to avoid greater harm. In the same study by Breslin, he suggests three potential ways to combat falling into this trap. Although his advice was specifically targeted at clinicians supporting surrogates in making decisions on behalf of patients, much of the same ideas from his first two suggestions can be applied to a large range of contexts.

His first solution is, when laying out options for a decision, to frame an alternative to the status quo as the default option, combating the inclination to immediately choose the “easy out.” The second is to share major decisions with others as a means to spread the responsibility, which minimizes the chance of having to take sole responsibility for the decision, fighting omission bias.

When making a difficult decision or looking at the current state of a system or structure, it’s easy to follow the status quo and hope it works out. Afterall, it’s easier to accept being responsible for harm by omission than by a direct decision. However, this bias continues to plague our decision making abilities across the board.

While we shouldn’t default to disregarding the current systems in place, we shouldn’t be against considering potential for improvement, or even completely restructuring an imperfect system. Ultimately, learning to challenge the status quo not only will work to benefit large-scale systems, but help to guard individuals from making poor decisions that serve to cause them more harm than making the difficult choice to consider alternative options.

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