This is the first in a series of posts (the second is here) that will look at some key cognitive biases and examine how they impact us as we consider switching jobs, interviewing for a job, and choosing a new job. Cognitive biases are a huge (and growing) topic, and they’re a ubiquitous facet of human behavior. In case you’re not familiar, a cognitive bias is a “systematic pattern of deviation from rationality” in human judgment, where inferences we make aren’t well-formed.

TL;DR— There are several cognitive biases that describe our irrational preference for the status quo and our resistance to change—specifically, the status quo bias, the sunk cost fallacy, and the ostrich effect. The status quo bias makes us resistant to change because change introduces uncertainty and uncertainty feels bad. We are inclined to believe things are fine. And because we invest so much time and energy in our jobs, we are inclined to avoid the perceived loss (and the bad feelings of loss) of switching jobs. We are inclined to continue investing in jobs that we’ve already “sunk” into; this is the sunk cost fallacy at work. Finally, we just plain don’t like how bad news feels, so we instinctively avoid it like an ostrich putting its head into the sand.


Status Quo Bias

The status quo bias describes a preference for the current state of affairs, assuming there’s nothing overwhelmingly negative going on. Because we experience negatives so much more strongly than positives, we’re biased toward avoiding new states of affairs that are harder to predict than our current situations, and instead tend to prefer to keep things the way they are. Obviously this isn’t rational—if evidence suggests that it would be better to switch jobs (because we’d be happier, more challenged, make more money, etc.) then we should want to know it! From experience, I know that people don’t necessarily notice the effect that a sub-optimal job has on their happiness; it takes actually leaving the job before they realize the extent of the negative effect it had on them.


Sunk Cost Fallacy

A “sunk cost” is a cost that’s already been incurred that you can’t get back, such as making a purchase without the option of a refund. Along those lines, the sunk cost fallacy is the justification of increased investment in order to avoid losing previous investments. It can be rational to continue to invest in order to protect your principle, but there’s been much research done to demonstrate that people will irrationally continue to invest to protect their sunk costs past the point that it can be justified based on numbers and evidence alone.

This applies to one’s professional life because jobs require a lot of investment (learning about the company, the tools, the team, etc.) before we get payoffs (e.g. promotions, pay increases). It’s difficult to rationalize switching jobs when you feel like you’re on the verge of a promotion or a pay increase. It can feel like you’re throwing away all your hard-earned expertise. The problem is that those feelings are not necessarily conveying the truth or leading to what’s best.


Ostrich Effect

Narrowly, the ostrich effect is the irrational attempt made by investors to avoid negative financial information. That is, risk and ambiguity feel bad, and people are incentivized to avoid information that might make them feel psychological discomfort.

More broadly, it’s worth considering the ostrich effect as the tendency to avoid seeking out bad news. We know from the first two biases in this list that we’re already inclined to avoid change, and instead prefer to stick with what we know and what we’ve already invested in. What’s even worse is that we’re disinclined to seek out negative information that might make us uncomfortable enough to spur action in the first place.


What You Should Do

The takeaways are simple to explain, but difficult to implement.

  1. To combat the status quo bias, actively stack the deck in favor of new or novel experiences. When comparing the pros and cons of staying vs. going, put your thumb on the scale a bit on the “go” side, since you know your bias will be to favor “stay.”
  2. To avoid the sunk cost fallacy, try to imagine what you would do if thrust into your situation without the history you’ve already gained in the situation. Or get some space from the situation to try and gain clarity: clear your head, take a vacation. Lastly, keep in mind that making moves across companies is often the best way to get a promotion (future post on this soon).
  3. Finally, to balance the positive information bias in the ostrich effect, make sure to intentionally play devil’s advocate (or get a friend to do it for you) when you’re making a decision. Think through the worst-case scenarios, know what could go wrong, and be prepared.

These cognitive biases are formidable opponents. Especially once you’ve got to sit in a job interview and convince a new set of people of your competence (which is tough for just about everyone), it’s no wonder more people don’t switch jobs. But knowing you’ve got these biases is the first step toward overcoming them. As to job interviewing, we can help with that.

Read the second installment in this series here.