Is there a name for this bias towards the status quo?

When people debate changing the status quo and trying something new, it often seems to me that whatever flaws the current method has, the one they’ve known for a while, are likely to be forgotten or dismissed and flaws of the suggested changed are noted critically, making it sound as if the new method is inferior because the old one is flawless in their mind.

To give some examples - when people discuss whether we should move to more nuclear power to replace coal, the discussion seems to end up with “Well, nuclear power creates nuclear waste, and that’s a logistical problem to deal with, therefore let’s not do it”… the discussion seem to never account for the pollution and waste that coal power generates, even though it’s a vastly bigger problem - because it’s how we’ve always done things and it doesn’t seem to count. So we’re not comparing the harm of dealing with coal waste vs nuclear waste - we’re just saying “nuclear waste introduces a new flaw, and therefore we shouldn’t do it”

Or even another argument within the nuclear debate - whether we should move the nuclear waste from now and in the future to a repository site like Yucca mountain. People seem opposed to having a centralized site like this in part simply because it would mean acknowledging that we were going to actually dealing with the waste and have a plan for it. As if they could somehow wish the waste away by not allowing it to be stored somewhere. But they ignore the current situation where it already exists and is stored in much less safe ways across the country.

Another example would be some aspects of the current healthcare debate. “But there would be rationing if the government took over, therefore we shouldn’t do it” is a popular idea. But the reality is that the status quo already features rationing - there’s only so much medical care to go around, and it’s rationed by price and time availability now, along with the insurance companies attempting to deny any treatment they think they can get away with. The rationing in the status quo is mentally dismissed and only the rationing of the proposed solution is accounted for.

And so if you forgive the status quo for its current flaws, but at the same time give full weight to the flaws of any change, it appears that changing is the inferior option when it may have relatively fewer flaws in reality.

This isn’t the nirvana fallacy, where people think it’s not worth doing something unless the solution is perfect, although it may be related. It’s more of a cognitive bias that automatically favors what the person is used to. Is there a term for it?

Better the devil you know?

Is it “conservatism”? That is, the state of being “conservative”?

this, perhaps?

if not, maybe these will be helpful:

A bias toward familiarity?

In one of my engineering classes, they explained that unfamiliar risks are usually seen as being worse than familiar ones. That’s why nuclear power is seen as being bad – radiation is still an exotic, mysterious force in most people’s minds.

Other normal human biases are:

*Chronic losses over catastrophic losses. An event that kills one or two people frequently is seen as better than a rare event that kills a large number of people at once.

*Control over lack of control. Situations that are out of your control are seen as bad.

A good example is the fear of flying. There are still many people who have never flown, so air travel is unfamiliar to them. Plane crashes are catastrophic events, capable of killing hundreds of people, and the passengers in an airplane have no control over the situation. In terms of risk perception, air travel hits all the wrong notes.

Yes, and it’s an everyday term: Conservatism.

Consider this formal, number 1 definition of the term:

Several of my uncles considered themselves clear and strong conservatives only since they returned after fighting World War II. They saw conservatism as the socio-political drive to maintain the status quo of the 1950’s, the only time during which they considered America to be properly structured, with women and minorities out of competition with them in the workforce and in society at large. They held that patriotism was what I would today call Hannitiean jingoism, and they simply adored Joe McCarthy and his sub-literate contempt for “card-carrying Communists in the State Department” and for “faggots” and “niggers”.

So although those uncles of mine failed to stop the clock and actually maintain the status quo of the 1950’s in reality, it doesn’t mean that their conservatism isn’t still centered on the goal of maintaining the status quo. It’s just that, to them, the status quo they want to maintain is the status quo of more than half a century ago. Similarly, the status quo that some religious conservatives wish to maintain never actually existed, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to restore and then maintain that imaginary status quo.

Conservatism has been scientifically demonstrated to be highly correlated with authoritarianism, almost to the point where the two are synonymous rather than merely correlated. These recent scientific studies, evaluated and discussed in the 2009 scholarly scientific analysis Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics and elsewhere (such as the paper abstracted here Are Needs to Manage Uncertainty and Threat Associated With Political Conservatism [in general] or [only] Ideological Extremity?) and Easily grossed out? You’re more likely a conservative, says Cornell psychologist), reveal that conservatives / authoritarians experience a wide variety of changes from the status quo as fearful or literally disgusting stimuli, and react to them as they would to genuine physical threats.

Only once I learned all this did I come to better understand why it is so deeply frustrating (though never pointless!) to debate conservatives. Along with all the usual problems people in general have with confirmation bias and other serious impediments to clear, critical thinking, trying to argue at an intellectual level with people whose brains and nervous systems are rebelling against status-quo-changing ideas at a much deeper and more fundamentally somatic level is bound to lead to considerable frustration.

To call this a very serious problem is to seriously understate the case! But we see this all around us here in the U.S. these days.



Conservatism seems to do a pretty damn good job describing what you want. As does the appeal to tradition. Though I am not sure if it is an “official” logical fallacy, the definition still is applicable here.

Conservatism implies a resistance to change from the status quo, but I’m thinking more in terms of cognitive bias or logical fallacies. There seems to be a violation of logic when weighing the consequences of two things and giving less weight to the drawbacks of the known/familiar/status quo issue. I thought there might be a specific idea for that.

Like say, my link?

Sort of. But in my examples, they’re not saying “let’s do coal because that’s what we’ve always done” - at least not directly. It’s more like “I don’t even think about the negative consequences of coal for power generation because it’s always just been there - we’re not introducing any new consequences with it” and that seems more like improperly weighing the options rather than just saying that the traditional ways are always better. I don’t necesarily mean they’re making an argument that tradition is better - but rather they fail to properly analyze the merits of each position because they have a bias towards ignoring the consequences of the familiar and/or status quo.

Also see

I agree, but I think it should have a lower-case “c” to distinguish it from the purely political movement.

Fear of the dark

None of these seem to explicitly cover the fallacy in question.

“conservatism” (little c) seems to just be a restatement of the status quo bias - “I prefer things the way they are, or the way they were a minute ago.”

Status quo bias is closest, with the desire that motivations to change must be substantial improvements. In that sense, looking at the negatives of the change while ignoring the negatives of the current condition makes some sense. “Yes, the current way has problems, but it’s problems we know and accept. The new way introduces big new problems that outweigh the possible gains.”

There also may be some Ambiguity Effect and Pseudocertainty Effect, but only peripherally or as a minor component. I think it’s probably best summed up as “go with the Devil you know”.

Understood, but I didn’t mean to imply Conservatism as a political movement. I just capitalized the “c” in “conservatism” because it followed a colon, as is my habit (I’ve seen grammarians differ on that practice, but I do it more for visual emphasis than with any grammatical rule in mind).

I understand the reluctance to use the term “conservatism” for what you’re both getting at, but based on the studies reported and evaluated by the authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, authoritarian conservatives (by far the most common kind) demonstrate real and significant cognitive processing errors when they evaluate what they almost instinctively perceive to be changes to the status quo (for not all changes are real changes; consider the conservative revulsion against health care reform with a public option, which they’ve repeatedly condemned as “socialized medicine” on the grounds that the U.S. has never had government insurance before, even though Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veteran’s Administration have long been exactly that.)

This irrational fear and somatic revulsion concerning changes in the established order is essentially an organic… um, thing (I can’t think of a neutral term)… in authoritarian conservatives’ brains that, as I pointed out above, they experience (at least emotionally) as fearful or literally disgusting stimuli, and react to them as they would to genuine physical threats or revolting events.

So the notion that this “giving less weight to the drawbacks of the known/familiar/status quo” issue results primarily from logical fallacies or other flaws in abstract reasoning turns out to be a red herring. Based on the most recent research, it turns out to be a consequence of the irrational and emotional fear and revulsion to proposed changes produced at/by considerably more fundamental / organic causes.

This is not to say they are necessarily genetic in origin. Although it is estimated by some that roughly half of a person’s political inclinations are genetic in origin, surely most people are aware that environmental factors and genetic factors interact far more subtly and deeply than any “genetic determinism” claims account for and so those must be abandoned.

So while I certainly do not deny that this predilection you speak of does include some abstract logical flaws – such as confirmation bias and the fact that human nature is such that most people demand a vastly higher burden of proof for claims or arguments that don’t jibe with their worldviews and biases as compared to those which do – I see these high-level, abstract flaws as being “motivated” primarily by the deep emotional aversion conservatives feel when changes to their idealized status quo are argued for.

Forgive me for my ignorant analysis, but it seems like you guys are saying that all conservatives have a mental deficit, because they make certain cognitive errors. I would then feel the need to point out that liberals/progressives have the same problem.

It’s never made any sense to me to assume that the old ways are always going to be better, but it makes the same amount of sense to say that the new ways are always going to be better. This should be obvious–we have to evaluate both based on their merits, not on how long they’ve been used (although the fact that its been tested in the real world is a valid data point.)

ambushed said:

I understand that. But the issue we are addressing, to me, doesn’t sound like it is constrained to authoritarian conservatives. Rather, it is a very common response by people in general to new ideas. It’s a sort of “comfort level” factor.

Like the example given above, it is looking at the plan to store nuclear waste in a giant underground dome and pointing out that the dome might leak, or that nuclear waste is “icky” and we don’t want to transport it from accross the country, but completely ignoring that we already have to do something with the nuclear waste we are generating, including transporting it around the country and burying it in the ground, from which it might leak. It would be one thing to compare the level of risk of leaking from the mountain dome vs. the current methods, or the level of risk of transport based upon the amount and distance of transport now vs. proposed. But people don’t do that - they just complain about the proposed plan and ignore the status quo. That is not a “conservative” or “Conservative” or “authoritarian conservative” bias, that is a people bias.