You Should (Probably) Just Quit Your Job Already
People have an irrational tendency to stay with the status quo.
Posted October 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Many workers are deciding whether now is the time to resign their current jobs and seek new opportunities.
- People tend to be biased against making big changes; they prefer to stick with the status quo.
- This bias in favor of the status quo might prevent workers from making the best choice.
We are in the middle of “The Great Resignation,” a period where an unprecedented number of workers are considering changes in jobs. One survey from early 2021 suggests that over 40 percent of workers are currently considering career transitions. COVID-19 has primed many workers to consider making big changes, but it’s unclear how many of them will follow through (and how many will stay).
Choosing to leave one job (and start a new one) can be an extremely difficult decision, and it’s hard to know what the right answer is. Research from behavioral economics suggests that people might approach this type of decision in a biased way. In particular, people have the tendency to avoid changes (and stick to the status quo), and this bias might lead workers to stay in their current jobs longer than they rationally should.
The status quo bias
One of the central ideas from the field of behavioral economics is that people are not perfectly rational decision-makers. They have biases that lead them to make predictable mistakes. The keyword is predictable; it’s not that people make random mistakes but that they make the same mistake across different situations. Bias can come in many different forms. Two common examples: people are more likely to overestimate their own abilities (overconfidence: Moore & Schatz, 2017) and underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks (the planning fallacy: Buehler et al., 1994).
One of the largest and most well-studied biases is that people are reluctant to make changes to their circumstances. This tendency is known as the status quo bias (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988). It means that all else being equal, people will not make any major shifts in their behavior unless there’s a very compelling reason to do so.
When people make decisions (like how much to save for retirement or whether to donate their organs), they will go along with the current status quo. This is considered a bias because it often leads people to stay with suboptimal or mediocre outcomes. It also means that you can make a bad situation or policy more appealing to people by emphasizing that it is the status quo.
The idea of the status quo bias is relevant for workers who are wondering whether they should make a change in their careers. If you are on the edge of quitting and debating whether it’s the right move, consider that you are probably biased in favor of staying in your current position. If you are making a mistake, it’s probably that you are too averse to making changes and taking risks. In concrete terms, the status quo bias leads people to focus too much on the positive aspects of your current job (while downplaying the benefits of a new position) and too little on the negative aspects of your current job (while overemphasizing the bad parts of the new position). In other words, when we make decisions, we tend to give the status quo an unfair advantage.
Whose bias is it anyway?
Although there is consistent research supporting the claim that people strongly prefer to stay with the status quo, not everyone agrees that this is actually a bias.
For some people, it might be a good idea to show a strong preference for staying with the status quo. For example, if you only care about having a job that’s just “good enough,” then it might not be worth the trouble to seek out a slightly better position. Or you might be somebody who really needs to minimize uncertainty. Whether the status quo bias helps (or hurts) your decision-making depends on your goals and priorities.
But, if you are on the verge of quitting, don't let the status quo bias keep you from taking the last step.
Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (1994). Exploring the" planning fallacy": Why people underestimate their task completion times. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(3), 366-381.
Moore, D. A., & Schatz, D. (2017). The three faces of overconfidence. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8), e12331.
Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of risk and uncertainty, 1(1), 7-59.