It’s also true that people who followed the instructions of the coin toss may have been more likely to respond to the follow-up surveys months later, compared to those who ignored the coin’s instructions. People who were happy with the results of making a change may have also been more likely to fill out the surveys than people disappointed with the outcome. After all, it’s way more fun to think about how well your life has turned out now that you’ve gone through a major upheaval than it is to report that you think you made a mistake, and would take it back if you could.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the study’s message about the benefits of changing the status quo applies specifically to people who are agonizing about whether or not to make a move. In economic terms, they’re on the margin. People who are mostly content with their jobs probably wouldn’t follow the instructions of a digital coin toss if it told them to quit, and if they did, there’s no reason to think they’d be happier for it. No one’s suggesting we all start living our lives like we’re psychopathic villains in No Country for Old Men. If the status quo is going well, stick with it!

But even accounting for these limitations, the results of the study still suggest a way to break out of those painful cycles of hesitation and indecision that people often get caught in when contemplating major life decisions. If the choice is between action and inaction, and you’re genuinely unsure about what to do, choose action.

Reclaiming agency in a time of upheaval

The entire concept of worrying about whether to make a big life change might seem like a luxury right now. The pandemic and ensuing economic fallout have already forced change upon a lot of people—whether that involves getting laid off or suddenly balancing full-time work with full-time childcare. Some may even feel like they’ve lost control over the direction of their lives, at least for the time being.

But this period of instability, and our equally uncertain future, has also revealed that we can’t always count on the status quo. The choice now isn’t necessarily between quitting your job or keeping it; your job may be eliminated anyway. Similarly, if you’re among those out of work right now, the question “should I start my own business” takes on a different meaning, as the alternative might just be continuing to job-hunt.

Status quo bias is predicated on our hesitation to make a change unless we’re sure that the benefits outweigh the risks. We’re more scared of what we might lose than we are excited about what we might gain. But right now, unfortunately, the losses are mounting up no matter what we do. It’s almost impossible to play things completely safe. And so we may well be primed to listen to Levitt’s rule of thumb and choose the action that represents change.

Were you already trying to decide whether to flee the city for a country life? Now is the time to buy some chickens; odds are you’ll be working remotely either way. Were you an event planner pondering a career change that involved doing more social good? With the calendar wiped clean of events for the time being, you really might as well go for it now.

With any luck, the pandemic will abate sooner rather than later, and the economy will rebound. But even when life improves, it’s useful to remember that the status quo is often not as steady and reliable as it seems.

Back in 2008, in the midst of another historic recession, the writer Sady Doyle offered up her own reflections on the false allure of the status quo. She writes:

“It is easy—maybe too easy—to stop asking yourself what would make you happy, and stay close to the things that you think will make you safe. This is wrong, and I will tell you why: you are never safe. Loss and change are constants. You will never be safe, and you may not always be happy—but you owe it to yourself to start asking the question.”

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