Status Quo Bias

by Will on September 11, 2010

Back in 1999 I opened an account at Bank of America. At the time it had a logo that looked like this:

A few months after I’d gotten used to my account and its attendant debit card and ATM visits, B of A took down all its old signs and replaced them with this logo:

I hated it! That flag looked so ugly to me! The stripes in the upper-right corner are going the wrong way! Who were they to change what the flag looks like?! Every time I used my card, and saw the old logo on it, I had a moment of displeasure that Bank of America had so needlessly disrupted my mental serenity by forcing this ugly new logo on me. Then, over time, the flag graphic came to seem normal, and now it’s the older logo that looks ugly to me. I can’t believe they went with that ugly old logo for such a long time!

For reasons various and sundry, I later switched my business to Washington Mutual. I found their logo and branch colors calming and reassuring. Their signs looked like this:

It turned out that they were doing a bunch of risky gambling with my money, and since they weren’t based in New York they didn’t have the requisite friends in high places that B of A and Citibank have. So they went spectacularly bankrupt during the Panic of ’08. Their offices were physically commandeered by the FDIC, which quickly wrote down their bad loans and sold their salvageable assets to Chase Bank, a bank with a long and storied history (you can trace it back to Aaron Burr if you care to; it seems he opened it just to piss off Alexander Hamilton. No love lost between those two!)).

Chase was new to California, so they saturated the market with advertisements boasting of their presence and stability. I resented the changes that they were imposing on me. I wished they would just let the branches remain Washington Mutuals, let my credit cards still say Washington Mutual, and so on. I hated their logo, which looks like this:

Now I’m used to it, and I don’t know what my problem with it was back then. It’s a pleasantly, even ingeniously, content-free graphic. What the hell is that thing?

My point in this story of my banking history is that humans are quite prone to an irrational preference for whatever they’re accustomed to, regardless of the actual merits of the two options. I think that’s what motivates a lot of opposition to the sort of reforms I would favor, including the recent health care bill. It’s also why the French take to the street whenever the prime minister proposes some minor change in labor law. I think we could have a better debate in this country if we were more mindful of this glitch in our programming.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jennifer September 12, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Let’s invent a drug that cures status quo bias!

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