Status Quo Bias

In January 2014, I wrote an article arguing that when Scotland went to the polls to vote for independence from the United Kingdom, it would be a non-event: Scots would overwhelmingly choose to retain the status quo.

What we are used to

My reasoning – rather than being social, political, or economic – was entirely psychological. There was, and is, an overwhelming body of evidence that when human beings are asked to decide about change, in any number of areas, a status quo bias dominates us; we perceive any deviation from the current state as damaging.

For example, in a 1991 study by Hartman et al, when faced with hypothetical decisions about choosing electricity providers, subjects consistently rejected changing their provider in favour of remaining with their current company, even when changing was clearly the rational choice.

This preference towards what we are used to – as opposed to what represents change – has been observed by researchers in all kinds of areas: the chocolate we buy; the insurance we select; the artwork we think best; the areas of the stock market in which we invest; and even choosing the approach to complementary medicine that we favour.

Multiple factors influence bias

Some research has shown that people are even less likely to deviate from the status quo when the decision they face is more complex, and when the status quo has been in existence for longer.

For Scots in 2014, then, it seemed clear: given that human beings overwhelmingly prefer things the way they are, and that the status quo represented 300 years of stable and prosperous government, those in the Yes Scotland campaign faced an impossible task. No matter how much they argued that independence was a sound political choice, they would not be able to overcome this in-built human desire for things to remain the same.

I bet heavily at $1.22 that Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom and recommended that other punters did the same.  The odds weren’t juicy, I argued, but represented fantastic value nonetheless.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I watched the opinion polls narrow in the run-up to the September 2014 vote, from the 68% opposed to independence when I made my bet, to a virtual dead-heat by polling day. Although the win for the No Campaign was clear in the end, it was still closer, at 55% to 45%, than most – including me – had predicted earlier in the year.

And the vote for Scottish Independence is just one example in recent years where voters have seemed to reject the status quo in favour of a radical change. Independence votes in Catalonia in 2014 and 2017, the last of which resulted in a unilateral declaration of independence; the election of Donald Trump in America; the narrow referendum vote win in the UK for Brexit; and the rise of far-right parties in Europe. Voters everywhere, it seems, are becoming increasingly comfortable with rejecting the status quo.

Things might not be that simple, though. Psychologists could argue that the examples above are evidence of the status quo bias at its most attuned, with voters feeling as if their current way of life is threatened – because of a desire to retain their cultural heritage, a fear of immigration, or an in-built gender bias which rejects a would-be female president – and voting for an option that their primal brains thinks best keeps things just the way they are.

It’s no coincidence that the political campaigns surrounding the examples above have all been criticised for their lack of factfulness, with numerous citations of “fake news” and “Brexit lies”. The successful campaigners were not seeking to win the rational argument; they were seeking to engage the emotional brain.

Recent experience tells us that we need to be careful when trying to apply simple and sweeping psychological thinking to any public vote, as I did in that Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, whether that be a general election, a referendum, or an eviction vote on a reality television show. There are usually multiple factors influencing the biases we bring to any decision, and understanding these across a population, even with the benefit of post-event voting analysis, is difficult.

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