Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 195
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Status Quo Bias

Research explores the status quo bias and reveals a way to overcome it.

Do you recall the Broadway show titled "The Music Man"? It was also made into a classic movie starring Robert Preston. It's a romantic comedy about a band leader, master salesman, and con man named Professor Harold Hill who sold the townsfolk of River City on the urgent need to buy band instruments, uniforms, and sheet music to form a marching band for their youngsters. Why the urgency? It was the trouble that was creeping up on their children, the trouble, trouble, trouble.

If you've seen the movie, you remember the songs and the story line, but for our purposes, the sales psychology revealed by the persuasive strategies of the main character is of greater interest to us. Mary Luce, from the University of Pennsylvania, is a student of sales psychology, and she recently published a study which explored the exact mental processes revealed in this show.

Think about purchasing decisions you don't want to make, and it's likely you'll find conflicting values competing for your allegiance. For example, your new car isn't likely to be the safest choice to protect your family if it's also the least expensive alternative. In this case, trying to make a choice between safety and economy makes you uncomfortable. It arouses negative emotion.

Professor Luce conducted a series of experiments which created purchasing decisions that pitted important values against each other. The more vivid she made these decisions for her subjects, the more intense the negative emotions that were aroused. Ms. Luce discovered that as these negative emotions became more intense, subjects' choice of the status quo alternative became more common.

Everyone in sales and marketing is familiar with the status quo alternative. That's the choice customers make when they decide not to purchase anything at all and "make do" with what they have, e.g., get a few more miles out of the old Chevy or wear last year's bathing suit one more year. The attractiveness and popularity of the status quo alternative is a curse which bedevils salespeople, and we call it the status quo bias. One of the more entertaining features of The Music Man was the ease with which Professor Harold Hill dispatched it.

Salespeople attribute many causes for the status quo bias, but Professor Luce's experiments showed that people select the status quo primarily to relieve negative emotions - emotions aroused by competing values in the decision. These experiments also showed that negative emotions can be lessened if people are reminded that a status quo alternative is available.

Ordinarily, the only time salespeople call attention to the status quo alternative is to subtly disparage it, thereby hoping to discourage its selection, but Professor Luce's experiments suggest this is a mistake.

Ms. Luce points out that there are actually three status quo alternatives in most choice situations: 1) "make do" with what you have, 2) continue to search, and 3) select the dominant alternative. The key for us is in that third choice.

Consider, for example, a car salesperson who recognizes negative emotions building in a customer who is trying to resolve the safety vs economy conflict. This salesperson could call attention to the status quo alternative of the dominant choice by saying: "Most people resolve this problem by selecting model XJE. It offers the most popular balance of economy and safety."

The immediate effect of this tactic should be to reduce the negative emotions customers are experiencing, and Professor Luce's research also reveals that it makes this choice more common.

Salespeople lose credibility when they use their knowledge of psychology to manipulate and exploit customers as Professor Hill did in the movie, but they gain credibility when they use this same knowledge to help customers make difficult decisions. Calling attention to all three status quo alternatives seems to fall into this latter category.

Reference: Luce, Mary Frances (1998) Choosing to Avoid: Coping with Negatively Emotion-Laden Consumer Decisions. Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (March), 409-433.

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