Status Quo bias and disability

Did you know? • Staying on benefits can seem the safe, easy option if work prospects look too difficult and risky. • Status quo bias: sticking in your “comfort zone” even when it’s not comfortable. • Cut unemployment: offer a new status quo with real benefits, reduce risk and failures, and make change easy. • Psychology plays a part in long-term unemployment.

A BBC Radio 4 programme caught my ear when it explained people can resist change even when it will improve their lives due to their “status quo bias”.  Could this be a factor when supporting people back to work after long-term unemployment (often due to ill-health/disability)?

Like fellow practitioners, I’ve talked about building motivation, aspiration, self-confidence etc but hadn’t considered that there might be other strong psychological bias that needs to be addressed.

My layman’s understanding is that status quo bias can be the driving factor when people prefer to stick with what they know rather than make a change.  This can even occur when the change offers real benefits.    Just applying logic may not overcome the bias so we need to use a combination of other methods (many of which will already be familiar):

  • Offer a different status quo.  At the general level, when everyone talks about high rates of unemployment and “benefit cheats”, it’s easy to accept that this is the norm.  Instead, we can offer the more positive reality that 50% of disabled people already work and another 25% would if they could – and that benefit fraud amongst disabled people is very low.  At the individual level, new activities, life experiences, community involvement and more can start changing a couch-potato out-of-work lifestyle. Role models and peer-to-peer interactions offer a new sense of what could become normal life.
  • A true “Better-Off” calculation.  If someone has already had to adapt to a way of life that is “good enough”, they may need very strong incentives before giving up and changing what they have learned to accept.  Status quo bias can mean that people place more importance on what they might lose if they make a change than on the benefits they might gain.  Previously, “Better Off” calculations have focussed on the financial impact of returning to work.  But there may be other persuasive advantages to be gained: holistic, realistic, robust and personally-relevant benefits.  These might include: longer term growth of finances on the new career ladder, new colleagues and friends, feeling more optimistic about the future, not bored by being stuck at home, managing health better, more independence etc.
  • Reduce risk of a wrong decision.  People are often aware of the disadvantages of their existing status quo but prefer this to the risk of change.  And when that change is already being resisted, it is even more unlikely if current apparent advantages could be lost and future gains are uncertain.  Moving back to work shouldn’t be a gamble but as risk-free as possible.    This could range from testing the water through volunteering and work experience/placements, continuing assistance once in employment,  supportive employers who provide workplace adjustments, Access To Work funding for equipment, support workers and more plus continuing help to further develop long-term employability (follow the link and click on Steps to sustainable success).  And a straight-forward way of reverting to the status quo of previous benefits gives the parachute reassurance if the wings come off.
  • Success rather than failure.  I worry about all those people who have not achieved a job through the various employment programmes out there.  An experience of “failure” is more likely to reinforce their reluctance to attempt change again in the future.  Perhaps funding regimes need to penalise providers who don’t achieve some level of success for every client?
  • Make change easy.  When there’s lots of information to weigh up, different choices to be balanced and complicated decisions to be made, just sticking with what is familiar rather than change is the easiest option – especially when life is currently “good enough”.  A straightforward, step-by-step progression that flows towards the change is more likely to be productive – nudging people from inertia and along a safe path rather than precipitating a leap in to the unknown.

Read more about status quo bias.

Penny Melville-Brown

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

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