How come no one ever has to make an argument in defense of the status quo?
I spend a lot of my time making an argument for change—for designing smarter systems and investing more responsibly. How come those of us who want change have to work so hard to make a convincing argument, while advocates of the status quo get to just sit back and shake their heads?
There’s a good reason, actually. It’s the status quo bias.
The status quo bias is a good thing. It’s essential to our ability to survive and thrive. Our instinctive conservatism—our preference for keeping things the way they are—protects us from incapacitating self-doubt and the misery of regret (did I marry the wrong guy, choose the wrong career, buy too big a house?). It relieves us of the burden of constantly reassessing our past choices. It keeps us from becoming mired in thoughts of what might have been and allows us to get on with our lives, to make the best of what we have.
But as an advocate of change, the status quo bias is my biggest problem.
Good enough is the enemy of better.
The status quo bias is that look people get on their faces when they realize that I’m rethinking what they’ve always accepted as the natural state of things. They look at me like I’m asking, Are you sure you’re happy in that marriage? Are you sure that’s the right job for you? Didn’t you overspend on that house?
They can recognize that there’s a problem with the role of cars in our city. They can acknowledge that other cities have undertaken major changes that have fixed that problem, and that—theoretically, at least—we could do it too. And still it is inconceivable that we would do anything at all about it. There’s a gap between “we should” and “we won’t”: it’s the status quo bias.
It’s the status quo bias that allows people to confidently dismiss progress with the phrase, “That would be great, but it’ll never happen.”
The status quo bias serves us well from day to day, but it’s a liability when we’re deciding how to invest billions of dollars in taxes, making decisions that determine what assets and liabilities taxpayers will own for generations to come. Big, strategic decisions (more highways, parking lots, and congestion or a modern electric tram in every neighborhood?) deserve an unbiased, objective, critical thought process.
For public-policy decisions to determine how we invest in energy and transportation infrastructure, we should adopt the following practices:
(1) Acknowledge the natural status quo bias in ourselves and others, and make a conscious effort to be open-minded and creative in our thinking in order to compensate for the status quo bias;
(2) Be just as critical and demanding of the status quo as we are of proposals for change, so that we make a fair and rational comparison between them; and
(3) Consider the Reverse Option: for example, how would we view a proposal to change from a status quo of electric streetcars in dedicated lanes to a new system of diesel buses stuck in traffic?