Cayce Hook

Department of Psychology

Status Quo Bias and Perceptions of Freedom


Questions about freedom of choice are central to debates over public health policy. Some of the policies with the largest impacts on behavior are those that change the choices available in the environment–yet these policies often invite criticism and concern over an encroaching “nanny state” that unduly limits individual freedom of choice. Historical examples suggest that perceptions of what constitutes an unfair infringement on freedom may be malleable, however: the introduction of seat belt laws in the 1980s, for example, generated heated debate about government overreach, with legislators holding up copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and warning of ‘violent’ reactions from angry constituents. Yet today, compliance with seat belt laws is widespread and the idea that these laws unduly restrict freedom receives little mention.

In this project, I examine the role of bias towards the status quo in shaping perceptions that a given policy infringes too much on freedom. Examining policies like nutrition requirements for vending machines, limits on the sale of flavored tobacco products, and healthy defaults for fast food menus, I find that policies are less likely to be perceived as infringing on freedom if they are imagined as already being in place. In contrast, when these policies are described as being under consideration, yet not yet part of the status quo, they are perceived as more threatening to freedom, less likely to be beneficial, and receive weaker public support.

These findings suggest that people may be initially reluctant to change the status quo, but that evaluations of a policy, and its effects on personal freedoms, may become more positive after it becomes part of a new status quo. In future work, I plan to examine whether explicitly teaching people about status quo bias, and encouraging people to imagine what the world would be like under a future status quo, can reduce defensiveness towards proposed health policies.