No Status Quo

“You never use that mixer. Those things are pretty expensive; you could sell that one for $200, easy.”

“I might need it, though.”

“If you didn’t have a mixer, and you saw one just like that for $200 right now, would you buy it?”

“Probably not.”

“Why? You might need it.”

“Yeah, but I could spend that $200 on other stuff.”

“Exactly. Let me put it another way – if you didn’t have a mixer or $200, and I offered you one or the other as a gift, which would you want?”

“Definitely the cash.”

Do you see what happened here? The other person went from not wanting to sell the mixer (in other words, to valuing the mixer much higher than $200) to ‘probably’ not buying a mixer (in other words, valuing the mixer at somewhat less than $200) to definitely preferring the cash (in other words, absolutely valuing the mixer far less than $200). Each time, they were implicitly asked which they valued more, but three different answers were given.

Why?

It’s called “status quo bias,” and it’s ruining your life. Fortunately, once you know about it, it loses a lot of its power over you – if you’re smart enough to beat it.

“Status quo bias” means that you over-value stuff you own or your current situation, even if the post-change state would be much better. You see this manifesting most often when people are faced with a decision whether or not to change something.

A fellow reached out to me recently looking for advice on a difficult situation he was facing. He had a good job and a nice home situation. But he also had a really spectacular offer for a new job he was considering. There was nothing wrong with his current situation; he was happy. He was trying to figure out if the possible disruption to that was worth the probable (but of course, always uncertain) improvement to his situation by taking the new offer. He’d rattled off lists of pros and cons but his biggest impediment to the decision was that both potential scenarios were good; he was just trying to figure out which was better, for him and his family. That’s a tough decision, and I certainly couldn’t make it for him. But I was able to help him make the decision a lot easier.

I asked him simply: “Imagine you didn’t currently have either job. You currently live in another state and you’re unemployed, looking for your next role. You get two offers at the same time – one for your current job, one for this new one. Which would you take?”

His response was instantaneous. He’d take the new one.

You see, when laid out like that, almost everything about the new role was better than the current one. Almost all the points in the “pro” column for the current job were facets of the fact that he was already there. He wouldn’t have to relocate; he already knew the role; etc.

He wasn’t fairly evaluating the two options against one another, he was evaluating changing versus not changing.

Unfortunately, our brains are wired to be risk-averse and afraid of change in far greater proportion than they should be. Change requires effort and risk; but far less than we expect. And change and risk are by nature temporary; if you don’t do something because of them, you’re trading a lasting benefit for mitigation of a temporary cost, and compounded over time those decisions are making your life so much worse than it could be.

Any time you’re faced with a decision between an inactive and an active choice, such as “should I quit my job for this new role” or “should I move to a new house or stay here” or even “should I sell this thing I don’t use or keep it,” re-frame the choice as being between two active options. Ask “if I didn’t live in either house, which one would I pick,” and you’ll find an easier answer. The human brain is lazier than you realize, but it’s great at comparing two things and picking the one you want if the effort for either was roughly equal. So you have to trick your brain a little, but the end result is better decision-making.

Sometimes the decision will go the other way, and of course that’s fine. Sometimes you might say, “I actually would like the new house better, but they’re so close I don’t think it’s worth the challenge and hassle of moving,” and that’s both fair and okay. Sometimes you’ll say, “You know what, even if both were on the table, I would take the mixer, and thinking about it this way has helped me realize that I want to set more time aside to pursue baking because I love it so much.” The point isn’t to always pick the change (if that were the lesson here, we wouldn’t be talking about how to make good decisions at all, because the decision would be automatic), but to know which one you really want and to not let your lazy brain trick you into the call that will make you less happy in the long run.

Don’t give your current status any additional weight just because it’s grandfathered in. You can make your life from scratch, over and over again, as often as you want. You can make it better each time.

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