New Stanford Study Looks the Effect of the Status Quo Bias

status quo bias

There’s a bias to keep things the way they are, even if things aren’t going well, according to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. But what is the efficacy of the so-called “status quo bias?”

Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge popularized the default effect, which explains that if consumers are offered a “side dish of salad instead of fries,” for instance “then people [will] eat more salad.” In other words: “we tend to stick with what we’re given.”

In new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford Professor of Management Margaret Neale and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor David Daniels, along with Stanford graduate students Julian Zlatev and Hajin Kim conducted an experiment to put this notion to the test. To their surprise, the experiment revealed that the exact opposite was true.

In the context of a game, “choice architect” attempts to convince a “choice maker” to select one option over the other. However, before the “choice architect” presents any options to the “choice maker,” Zlatev explains that “the choice architect was able to select which option showed up as the default.”

“When we looked across all of the studies, people chose to set the desired option as the default roughly 50 percent of the time.”

This phenomenon, which the researchers dubbed “default neglect” came as a surprise due to the fact that many participants “demonstrated a partial intuitive grasp of reasons why defaults can sway individual choices.”

“If you prompt people about specific reasons why people tend to stick with defaults, then they’re more likely to give you a reasonable answer,” Daniels says. “When left to their own devices, choice architects didn’t seem to spontaneously consider why people might be susceptible to defaults.”

Neale believes that the presence of default neglect exerts an invisible but potent influence on our decisions. “These are small changes in how we present decisions that can dramatically affect the quality of people’s lives, the quality of their communities and the larger world. But we don’t use defaults because we don’t realize in any kind of day-to-day environment how powerful these things are.”



About the Author

Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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