“To do nothing is within the power of all [people].”
I have a thought experiment for you, using imagery I’ve borrowed from Oxford University PhD candidate Rob Henderson.
Imagine you’re home, having just sat down for lunch. The food is hot on your plate, and you have a book you’re ready to read. As you begin to take your first bite, there’s a knock on the door. A man in black stands at the door and tells you something strange. In true Matrix fashion, you learn that your life and your perceived reality are a computer simulation. Everything you’ve ever experienced, everyone you’ve ever known—none of it is real. The pain you’ve experienced and the joy you’ve felt have all come at the direction of an algorithm. The mysterious man apologizes and explains that it was not supposed to be this way for you. See, they connected you to this computer by mistake, and they would like to give you the opportunity to leave the simulation. You can have your real life back. However, there is one condition: your life “in the real world” is not going to be the same as the life you’re now experiencing (it may be better, but it could also be worse, and you won’t know until you decide).
What would you choose? Would you choose to remain in a world you know and can predict? Or would you choose to change and enter something new? This scenario would eventually become known as the “status quo bias.” In studying this bias, we find the work of two researchers, Dr. William Samuelson and Dr. Richard Zeckhauser, which was instrumental in attempting to answer the question, “When making decisions, will people choose to do nothing, or will they opt for change?” Using research scenarios like the thought exercise above, they asked a cohort a series of questions about change. The results were fascinating.
Publishing their research, “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making,” Samuelson and Zeckhauser discovered that when people are given the chance to change, 59 percent of people will choose to stay the same, even if the change could possibly benefit them. Across the board—be it politics, money, even the ways we design our cities—when given the option of remaining the same, humanity will overwhelmingly choose what we know and what is comfortable, even if that option is not particularly fulfilling or beneficial to us.
Processing the findings of this paper, Rob Henderson writes: “Research . . . suggests that losses are twice as psychologically harmful as gains are beneficial. In other words, individuals feel twice as much psychological pain from losing $100 as pleasure from gaining $100. One interpretation is that in order for an individual to change course from their current state of affairs is that the alternative must be perceived as twice as beneficial. This highlights the challenges we may face when considering a change to our usual way of doing things. . . . Even when we understand our current path is no longer beneficial or no longer makes us happy, we must still overcome the natural urge to stay on the path unless the alternative is sufficiently attractive. In order for us to readily pursue an alternate path, we must believe that the alternative is clearly superior to the current state of affairs.”
As creatures of habit, we prefer that which is safe over that which could move us forward. More than we care about progressing, we are afraid of failing. In many ways, we see this lived out in our lives, don’t we? People continue working jobs they dislike, stuck in routines that make them unhappy and in relationships that are toxic because they have a deep internal bent toward that which is known and, at some level, that which is comfortable.
At its root, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is one that calls us out of our status quo bias.
This makes the call to holiness a curious and significant thing. At its root, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is one that calls us out of our status quo bias. It sees us living our lives, comfortable and well worn, and puts the call on our hearts to leave that which we have known so well. This reality is embodied perfectly in God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12: “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” The call of God is the call to grow and change and develop and mature. In true kingdom-of-God fashion, it’s the call to lay down the lives we have lived and to take up our cross, walking into an unknown future, trusting that God is going to be faithful until the end.
While this seems simple—of course we can and must trust God and follow God’s call—it’s actually painful and frightening when lived out daily. In many ways, the felt experience of following the path toward holiness is perfectly captured in the exchange between Gandalf and Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Why does the call to become a new creation matter? Why is it important to name the fears that are so common in confronting the unknown? Because, over the past year, we have all been confronted with forced change—the kind of change that has demanded more from us than we ever believed we could give. Over the past year, we have watched this unfolding perfect storm as three of the most painful and chronologically scattered experiences of the twentieth century all united in a single, heart-rending, twenty-first-century year. We navigated a global pandemic. Americans were forced to confront the profound systemic racism and cultural inequality present in the United States, and we weathered an economic collapse that was marked by historic unemployment, housing losses, and compounded by mental wellness crisis after crisis. Capping an already painful year, we marched toward and warred over a deeply partisan and contentious presidential election. In the months that followed, Christian nationalism became a serious and unnerving conversation for the evangelical church in the West. For people who are resistant to change, we have found ourselves completely overcome by it.
Herein we find the importance of examining status quo bias. In moments like this, when change is all around us and we feel we are being pressed in on all sides, we would like nothing more than for life to go back to the way it once was. Comfort feels like a matter of life and death. “Make it stop!” we find ourselves saying. However, as we process this year, we are confronting a question we can no longer avoid: What now? What do we do in the aftermath of such a year?
As a denomination, as local congregations, as pastors, and as parishioners, we have all been forced to confront the ways in which we have participated in and benefited from systems that may or may not be just. We have heard the cries of our brothers and sisters of color, and we must choose how to respond. We have watched the gospel being twisted and wielded for partisan benefit. Again, the question remains: What now?
In a post-pandemic world, what will it mean to be the people of God? If this status quo bias study is to be trusted (and follow-up research has shown it to be trustworthy), we must recognize what is deep in our hearts. Moving forward will not be easy. This system, broken as it might be, is comfortable for some of us, and our minds may want to choose comfort over growth. We would be wise to name this tendency if we find it in ourselves. However, in the midst of this Lenten season, I’m reminded that there may be no more appropriate time during which to confront these painful parts of ourselves.
Lent—this uncomfortable, wilderness journey—naturally invites us to grapple with what is broken, to sacrifice it, and to reject it, relying on the faithfulness of God to combat what is fleeting, deceptive, and hollow. As we move through this Lenten season, fresh from a year of such turmoil and pain, may we not look back, longing for what was. Instead, may we trust that the God of hope will fill us with all joy and peace as we entrust to God all that we are called to. And, as we move into that frightening unknown, may we experience the hope-filled overflow that comes from living in the power of the Holy Spirit.