Seeing Status Quo Bias

by Liron4 min read8th Mar 20213 comments

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Reversal TestStatus Quo BiasRationality
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Reading about biases doesn't automatically make you notice them in your own life; accurately noticing real-life biases requires you to reverse-engineer reality into a detailed mental model. In the case of my favorite bias, status quo bias, seeing it for yourself requires entrepreneur-like vision.

If you see that some real-world situation is primarily the result of status quo bias, then you're also seeing a better world hiding in plain sight, connected to the current world by a short walking-path, with the gate open for anyone to walk it.

Seeing Remote Work

Remote work is the biggest example of status quo bias that I can think of in recent memory. Physical offices and in-person conversations were extremely overrated for years, until the pandemic forced everyone to re-evaluate them.

(Why didn't I pick anti-life-extensionism as my example of status quo bias? Because reliable drastic life extension technology doesn't exist yet, and most of today's death apologists will probably opt into life extension once it's ready and working. So it's not obvious that status quo bias is the primary reason why life extension is currently underrated.)

But how do we know that status quo bias was a primary cause of the pre-pandemic physical office bubble? Maybe we're just witnessing a local optimum that emerges from the complexities of group cooperation and social signalling: If you're an individual employee who prefers to work remotely, you need approval from your boss, who needs to follow your company's policies. Or if you're a top executive in the company, a flexible remote work policy might not be politically feasible for you to endorse, even if the logic is obvious.

But while status quo bias isn't the only factor at play, it's easy to get direct evidence of if you go looking for it. There are plenty of examples of situations where cooperation and social signalling dynamics are minimized, yet people were still in the habit of unnecessarily doing things in person.

Remote Prenups

A couple years ago, I hired an attorney to draft a prenup. The attorney's office was a 45-minute drive from my house, so I asked if we could do the whole thing remotely, to avoid an unnecessary trip. The attorney was surprised at this unusual request, but she agreed, and the whole process went fine without ever meeting.

How do we explain all the other clients in my situation driving to this attorney's office? I don't think they felt much pressure to social-signal or cooperate. I think they just bought into the status quo that working with an attorney requires at least one in-person interaction. This is a good example of how status quo bias was propping up the physical-office bubble before the pandemic.

If you're not convinced, try running this example through the reversal test. Imagine a world where most attorney interactions were handled 100% remotely. Requesting to meet with your attorney in-person would be considered weird and unusual. In that reversed-status-quo scenario, how many people would feel an urge to go against socially-expected behavior and seek out an in-person meeting with their attorney? Probably a small fraction, not like the pre-pandemic majority.

Today, we don't have to imagine the reversal test, because COVID has already shaken up the status quo and caused a reversal. My old attorney presumably handles all her prenups remotely. And I'm guessing she'll keep doing so post-pandemic, with only a few clients insisting on seeing her in person. On some level, everyone always knew that it never added much value to see her in person, but they used to do it anyway.

Big shake-ups like COVID-19 are one way to fight status quo bias and force a new status quo. But if you don't have patience to wait for a shake-up, you can just use your rationality skills and argue why some alternative option is better than the status quo. That's what I'll do in the rest of this post, for weight vests.

Seeing Weight Vests

I recently started exercising regularly in my rudimentary home gym (dumbbells, kettlebells, a pull-up tower and a treadmill). After working out daily for a few months and still feeling scrawny, it occured to me to try working out with a weight vest.

I was vaguely aware that weight vests were a thing because I once had a personal trainer who randomly made me wear a 10lb weight vest on a couple occasions. But I'd been thinking of weight vests as just another kind of mundane gym equipment like medicine balls, resistance bands, or that ladder thing you run through.

I thought of a plausible story why weight vests might make my workouts more efficient:

Throughout human history, we had to carry stuff: children, animal carcasses, water, supplies, etc. But when we're not carrying anything, our unloaded bodies are super light and easy to carry, compared to what our muscles are designed for.

We modern weaklings, accustomed to moving through the world with just our super light bodies, have lost the sense of how easy it is to carry ourselves when we don't have an additional weight.

Our body-weight-to-strength ratio affects the quality of the muscle tension we get from our exercises, but we usually don't bother to adjust that ratio by adding more body weight.

For example, you're probably familiar with the idea of putting a weight on your back to make your pushups harder, but you probably have never bothered to do this kind of exercise-specific weight addition. Why not? Because your default body weight is so convenient to work with, that you don't even question it. Similarly with pullups, squats, planks, running, and the majority of popular exercises.

Also, the lightness of your unweighted body comes into play in parts of your gym routine where you don't think about it: Standing and doing bicep curls, sitting on a bench and doing overhead dumbbell tricep extensions, even when you're walking from one exercise to the next. Wearing a weight vest passively strains your muscles more during your workout.

The Weight Vest Reversal Test

Then I thought of flipping the question around: Instead of "why should I wear a weight vest", I tried asking, "Why *shouldn't* I wear a weight vest?" As if wearing a weight vest were already the default, status quo choice. Why shouldn't lots of people be wearing a weight vest at the gym? Is it status quo bias?

Imagine if all gyms had a rack of weight vests of different weights available, and it was socially expected for everyone to put one on before starting their workout. In that scenario, what fraction of people would do their workout vestless, if it meant going against the grain? Or what fraction of people would select the lightest available vest - say, 5lb - for their workout? My guess is that most people would fall into the habit of putting on a pretty heavy vest.

My object-level experience with weight vests

I bought a weight vest with adjustable weight up to 20lb. I did a few weeks of workouts with 15lb, then upped it to 20lb. I've been happy with it. I'm breathing harder after every movement I do, even though I've reduced my rep counts and treadmill speeds. Overall, I believe I'm getting a better quality workout than before. I'm planning to buy a new weight vest and keep gradually upping it 5lb at a time until I eventually get comfortable with 40lb.

I'll just mention some obvious caveats:

A weight vest stresses your joints more. But based on some Googling and my own experience, I'm not worried about this issue for weight vests lighter than 30-40lb.

While I find the weight vest reasonably comfortable, it's probably not worth wearing weight vests if they're not comfortable for you.

I also wouldn't advise wearing a weight vest if your primary goal isn't to improve your fitness, e.g. if you're running because it's fun and relaxing.


Seeing the potential of weight vests is only a low-stakes toy example of seeing status quo bias. But in real life, status quo bias can often be high stakes.

The lack of remote work circa 2019 was destroying $trillions per year of value. The economic crash of 2020 would have been a lot worse if we didn't have this reserve of value we could readily tap into.

If you've ever brainstormed startup ideas, one of the first questions you ask about each idea is why it doesn't already exist today:

  • Why don't people track all their body and blood stats every minute?
  • Why can't you buy and sell kidneys?
  • Why can't selling a house be as easy as selling your car back to the dealer?

That last idea is Opendoor, a startup founded in 2014 that went public a few months ago and now has a $12B market cap. Questioning the status quo is a small part of building a hugely successful company. It pays to keep an eye out for status quo bias.

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It's not clear that switching to primarily remote work will be a win or stable. Some people seem to find video conferencing really draining, and it's unclear what sort of impact it'll have on innovation and team forming. I suspect post covid we'll be in a world with much more video conferencing -- I think that you're right that certain types of occasional meetings will be much more online, such as meetings with lawyers/accountants. But I suspect that people will still want to be in the same space with the people they work with regularly, at least a few times a week.

It seems clear to me that the percentage of days worked remotely will never go back to anything less than double the pre-pandemic value, at least

I think there will be more variance with respect to pre-covid. 

I've been fully remote for the last year and a half or so -- well before covid. It's been... a'ight. Some of my team mates, in my judgement, have not been good collaborators -- they probably wouldn't be good face to face collaborators, but being remote with them added an extra element of unpleasantness. It requires different skills to remote collab well. 

I'd guess that I'm more suited to full-time remote work than at least 80% of people (altho maybe not 80% of programmers..) 

Will remote be at least 2x what it was previously? Maybe. Could be. I don't know what it was previously, but I think it was pretty low, so that's perhaps not a hard threshold to cross.