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The Status Quo Bias and Overcorrection

In my last post I discussed cognitive biases in decision making and introduced the concept of the platinum hammer. An extension of the well-known golden hammer, the platinum hammer is a predilection for the latest new thing as opposed to the familiar. None of us are immune to cognitive biases, but the more we know about them, the more we can avoid them through careful reflection and self-awareness, and in this post I want to discuss a related cognitive bias - the Status Quo Bias.

The Status Quo Bias

Research has shown that people disproportionately favour the ‘do nothing’ approach, in everything from business strategy to personal finance and health. This phenomenon is known as The Status Quo Bias and is, in a sense, closely related to the golden hammer - it’s about a predilection for sticking with the comfortable and well-known. The topic is well researched and discussed, and consequently well understood by many people. There is a wealth of information about how to spot this tendency in yourself, and how to mitigate it.

Mitigating the Status Quo Bias

As with any cognitive bias, the first and most important step is recognising it - without self-awareness there is no hope, but there are strategies for avoiding over-reliance on our comfortable defaults. A common approach is to frame ‘do nothing’ as a choice, thereby making choosing to maintain the status quo an active decision rather than a passive one. This can often motivate people to more rigorously pursue a better option.

This is why ‘do nothing’ is often included in business cases, something I always do, as it forces us to evaluate the costs of this approach. The costs (often opportunity cost) associated with the status quo are not immediately apparent, but by weighing them against the alternatives, these hidden costs can be surfaced. I have been involved in organisations where changes that were initially dismissed were later pursued after this approach.

Another common approach is to consider ‘do nothing’ as a default negative. The Status Quo Bias is fuelled by loss aversion, meaning that the perceived potential loss associated with change carries more weight than the perceived potential gain, so inherently considering ‘do nothing’ as a loss can help to overcome this.


While this is a valuable strategy, there is a problem with this approach. I mentioned above that the Status Quo Bias is well known and understood by many people. A consequence of this is that some people can have a tendency to over-correct, favouring change as the default and dismissing the status quo as a viable option altogether. The problem here is that sometimes when we frame ‘do nothing’ as an active choice, we forget to frame it as a viable choice.

Doing something is better than doing nothing.

An actual quote from a real executive I have worked with

There are several problems associated with this overcorrection. The most obvious is that it can lead to regression - the new solution could be worse than the status quo. This is often not the case however; more often, it leads to an outcome that is only slightly less sub-optimal than the status quo, an improvement that is also often completely disproportionate to the investment made in the change. While this is obviously inherently wasteful, it also results in greater opportunity cost.

I have seen this play out multiple times in my career; in fact, I have worked for two companies that spent millions on huge software projects and associated organisational change management, simply because the current solution wasn’t up to scratch. In both cases, the new solution was inarguably superior, but orders of magnitude less superior than the associated cost. And more importantly, it closed the door on better opportunities.


When considering all available courses of action, it’s critical to mitigate the Status Quo Bias by evaluating the ‘do nothing’ option objectively and critically, rather than letting it take priority as a comfortable default. This means treating it with equal consideration as other options, and arguably dismissing it out of hand is as bad as ignoring the Status Quo Bias altogether.

While the Status Quo Bias needs to be avoided, there are certainly situations, where upon careful consideration of all available courses of action, the status quo or ‘do nothing’ approach is the right choice. That doesn’t mean it has to be the right choice forever - note my use of “all available courses of action”; if there are no better options than the status quo at the time, that doesn’t mean that better options may not become available in the future. The very fact that alternatives have been considered suggests there is a problem or area for improvement, and if a thorough analysis indicates that the status quo is the best option, this calls for vigilance and looking out for new opportunities. This is inherently a valid strategy for mitigating the Status Quo Bias, and a better one than leaping to a potentially worse decision purely for the sake of change.

I’m sure we’ve all been involved in projects driven more by the desire for change than by an objective improved outcome. Do you have any stories to share about change for change’s sake? What methods have you found effective in avoiding overcorrection?

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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