In middle school, I once got sent to the principal’s office for not wearing my seatbelt on the school bus. I rode on different school bus models pretty frequently – the older ones typically never had seatbelts while the newer ones did. The same school would often utilize both models during the school year – sometimes I rode the old buses and sometimes the new ones. So, I thought it strange when I, as a 5th grader, had to stare my principal in the eyes and hear him tell me “You will wear a seatbelt on the bus”. This was perplexing because despite me bringing up the discrepancy between buses with and without seatbelts, a discrepancy he was surely aware of, his reply was nonetheless the same.
I thought it strange how administrators would chastise us about wearing our seat belts while simultaneously being aware of the fact that certain buses didn’t even have them. This made the practice of disciplining students for not wearing seatbelts seem arbitrary. Now, on the one hand I realize that my principal and bus driver probably just wanted us to be safe. But on the other hand, I also thought it odd that if they truly cared about whether students wore seatbelts out of concern for their safety why they still made use of buses that lacked them. Thus, the tussle I had with my principal stuck with me because it (along with the many others I would have throughout high school) was one of my earliest experiences where I saw a divide between what people in power were telling me and what actually made sense in practice. I began to wonder whether the motives my school administrators were telling me had less to do with the content of their directives and more to do with the act of putting me in my place and making me simply fall in line.
I began to wonder whether the motives my school administrators were telling me had less to do with the content of their directives and more to do with the act of putting me in my place and making me simply fall in line.
As impressionable children, we are taught (compelled?) to accept things and do as we are told without question — to passively accept the existing state of affairs. While I largely got by as a child giving lip service to adults when directed to engage in perfunctory formalities or having to abide by their notion of correct behavior, a tiny part of me always wondered whether adults were as competent and knowledgeable as they had led us to believe. But as I got older, that tiny part blossomed into full blown disillusionment about the competency and rationality of those in positions of authority over me. I realized that 1) most people in positions of power aren’t necessarily more capable, smart, or rational than the rest of us and 2) most of the reasons that people who yield power over you give for “why” things operate as they do are complete bullshit.
If you grow up never questioning why things are the way they are — why people with certain skin tones have to sit in certain parts of the bus, why unions are bad for workers, or why we have to work eight hour days, Monday through Friday, toiling for meager pay — then you may come to believe that these things are part of the natural order. This is the status quo bias. Maintaining the current system of affairs on the faith that it is right simply because it is all we have known. The status quo bias can take many forms but is best exemplars include gatekeeping in the Universities, toxic working environments in the medical field, or the agonizing 996 work culture in china and the banking industry. This bias is established by those in positions of power, largely maintained by snuffing out dissent and often justified on appeals to tradition or authority.
The status quo bias is an emotional bias; a preference for the maintenance of one’s current or previous state of affairs, or a preference to not undertake any action to change this current or previous state.1
But I am hostile to appeals made on the basis of tradition and deeply skeptical to conventional modes of authority. As intelligent primates, we can surely establish better justifications for how we go about operating our lives than saying this is what the higher-ups said is right and this is how we have always done things. The difficulty in being the type of person who questions authority and challenges longstanding convention (being an iconoclast) originates from the status quo bias being deeply ingrained in our lives from birth. We enter this world in ignorance and slowly form our reality from the experiences and knowledge handed to us by others, usually those in positions of authority. This — coupled with the propensity for school to snuff out curious minds who buck the system, workplace management beating us into obedience and conformity, and politicians who speak of change but throw enough bread crumps to keep us happy and not too rebellious — makes for a citizenry who either go about their lives blind to the faulty assumptions that form the foundation of our society or are dulled into thinking that they lack the capacity to change things since “them’s the breaks”. Once you realize that everything about our society is made up, you become more open to realizing that things don’t have to be the way they are; it is fully within our powers as rational humans to create whatever type of society we wish to live in.
We are born curious, not skeptical. It is the state, religion, tradition, hierarchies, and capitalism, that have taken our curiosity and supplanted it with subordination, turning us into a culture that is anti-intellectual and disdainful of change. To quote Tennyson, these systems teach us not “to reason why” but “to do or die” (and to be back on the clock before our 10 minute lunch break is over). The status quo bias is pervasive and permeates social institutions on all scales and is problematic since it blinds us to alternatives that could be in our best interest. We become faithful adherents to positions that are supported on baseless grounds, grounds that enrich those in power while keeping the rest of us too overworked to say anything about it. While we are born naturally curious skepticism is a skill that is borne out of critical inquiry, our quest for truth, and the desire to shape our own future rather than idly sitting back as our future is dictated by others. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, to see the true nature of things requires us to turn our backs away from how things are now and see the world for what it really is so that we can ultimately change it for the better.