The Spell of the Status Quo

“The true force of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.”

Audre Lorde

We are all afflicted by some form of status quo bias. From a young age, most of us were told to colour within the lines, to learn the rules and follow them, and that if we study hard and work hard, everything will turn out okay. 

Yet, today, with the state of our world, it’s this exact kind of thinking and behaviour that’s led to catastrophic consequences for all life on this planet. 

So what does status quo bias actually mean? Status quo bias is a cognitive bias that makes us choose that things remain unchanged, from small decisions in our daily lives, to decisions about how to run an organisation or a country. 

Research in behavioural science suggests that people will often make decisions for things to remain the same because they tend to think more about what they might lose, rather than what might be gained. It can be out of fear, or simply because we prefer the familiar, but it can also be out of laziness, to avoid thinking too deeply about decisions we have to make. 

You might be thinking ‘not me, I rebelled and became an activist / worked for an NGO,’ etc. but regardless of sector or profession, much of our thinking, reasoning and acting suffers from status quo bias, in our personal and professional lives.  

Do you do certain things because of what your family/friends/colleagues expect of you? Do you vote for the same people year in, year out? Do you make decisions based on what’s right or what’s easiest? Or do you tend to stay silent in the hope that someone else will speak up instead of you?

Status quo bias is the reason so many organisations (and individuals) struggle to adopt innovative ideas or ways of working. “We tweak the recipe without ever questioning whether we should make an entirely different dish,” Aaron Dignan explains in Brave New Work. Yet, he says, it’s often easier to make things ten times better, than ten per cent better, because when you aim for ten times better you lean on bravery and creativity, rather than on existing tools and assumptions.

This is important because if we are in the habit of not thinking much, we are more likely to become paralysed in a crisis. And the less we think, the easier it is to be manipulated. “Evil comes from a failure to think,” Hannah Arendt observed, “the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanise them.” 

So what can we do? Ridding ourselves of status quo bias doesn’t mean causing chaos or being disruptive for the sake of it; it should be because deep down we have the desire to make things better. And rather than thinking we need to perform some grand act of bravery or sacrifice, we could perhaps see this as a form of liberation. A liberation that stems, first and foremost, from our own way of thinking.

Similarly, Minna Salami writes about the need to decolonise the mind, which she says is “not like removing old furniture. … It is not removing thought patterns by force, but instead gently inserting new insights, which eventually reshuffle and do away with harmful thoughts.” And this liberation doesn’t have to come all at once; she compares this process to the Russian matryoshka dolls, where it’s a “process of inserting and reinserting, imagining and reimagining, shaping and reshaping.”

I think back to some of those moments of liberation and can begin to observe how each one spirals into something else. For example, like others I am sure, I grew up being told I always had to finish a book I started. When I mentioned this to one of my university professors, she laughed saying: “Don’t waste time reading those you don’t like. Do you realise how many amazing books there are out there that you will never have time to read?!”

On a more selfish note, the sense of liberation every small act gives us is exquisite and deeply empowering, for ourselves, but others too. And while we will most likely never know what impact one small act of resistance might have, history has a lot to teach us here. 

Perhaps we can take our queue from Timothy Snyder’s lessons on tyranny: “Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along…. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes