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When are we most likely to accept the status quo?

When faced with a complex decision, people tend to accept the status quo, as reflected in the old adage, “When in doubt, do nothing.”

Indeed, across a range of everyday decisions, such as whether to move house or trade in a car, or even whether to flip the TV channel, there is a considerable tendency to maintain the status quo and refrain from acting. One factor driving this status quo bias is the difficulty of the decision process. In super-markets, for example, there is often an overwhelming choice of different brands for the same product, and consumers may leave the store empty handed because of a difficulty-induced bias toward inaction (which helps explain why Trader Joe’s is so successful).

The status quo bias can be shaped by a number of complex and interacting factors, such as the economic costs involved in making the transition, aversion to losing what one presently owns, and the potential for regretting a change.

Our results show that participants are more likely to accept the status quo when faced with difficult choices, leading to more errors. This suboptimal choice behavior implies that the status quo bias may disconnect people’s preferences from their subsequent choices. For example, employees often accept a company’s default retirement plan even if it leads to poorer investments. Similarly, consumers become impassive in the face of overwhelming choice, leading to a fall in the number of purchases. Common to both these scenarios is a difficult decision and the opportunity to remain with the status quo.

Full Study

The Paradox of Choice is worth reading.