• Christopher G. Moore

Status Quo Bias in Fiction

In cognitive science there is the notion of status quo bias, meaning people like things they way they are and rarely welcome change. This bias is often written about in the context of political science and economics. But it is rarely discussed as such in the world of novels, publishing and literature. It is hardly a stretch to find that status quo bias applies to fictional worlds. Readers, critics, and editors may complain that a character has through actions or thought departed from what he or she did in previous books. We expect the character to remain the same, and knowledge of this collective bias can influence the decisions made by an author in the kind of future books he or she will write.

If you write a series with continuing characters (such as the Vincent Calvino crime series), then you know that readers soon develop a bias for characters acting, feeling, and expressing themselves in familiar ways. Anyone writing novels would do well to learn the basic ideas behind the Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion and status quo bias.

Sometimes these ideas are buried or kept out of sight because we labor under influence that characters in the best novels evolve during the course of the book. While that evolution indeed is admirable as far as it goes but it often ignores a fundamental need that readers have for characters (in a series) that are unchangeable. That is the balancing act required of a novelist who writes a continuing series. Or a politician who wishes to be re-elected. To make readers (or voters) comfortable with change, that they will gain something more valuable in return. A good author can defeat the status quo bias but the burden is on him or her to make a good case for the divergence from the status quo.

Subjective judgments are as important as strict logic. A point made by Professor Bostrom about status quo bias in the debate about cognitive enhancing drugs. In the context of a novel, the personal decisions a character makes and the social networks from which he or she plays and work, more often than not reinforce pre-existing biases. If you believe that Bangkok is semi-jungle environment with elephants as the primary mode of transportation, then you won’t appreciate having your bias challenged by a noir novel set in a modern urban setting. But if you are open minded and understand that such bias impairs rather than enhances judgment, you will seek out novels that allow your biases to be challenged. The large number of crime novels set in foreign locations indicates a large number of readers who are willing to accept the challenge to their biases.

Though critics such as Clive James have said such books are essentially “guide books” without any enduring literary value. In his New Yorker article, he put his cards on the table:

“As a form for real writers, the detective novel is bound to be a dry well in the end, because a detective novel, no matter how memorable in the detail, is written to be forgotten.” A perfectly executed status quo bias example.

Bias is the twin of irrationality. It exists below the surface, often unconsciously informing our decisions and judgments. If a literary author writes crime fiction or science fiction, critical eyebrows are raised like a chorus line of high as a Rockette’s kicks.

Most places one looks in the world of books there are examples of status quo bias. Sometimes, as in the case of Clive James, dismissed altogether in the junkyard of forgotten. We all suffer from status quo bias one way or another. But understanding that this is an essential part of the human condition makes it easier to accept that when it happens to us, don’t take it personally. And instead take hope from such writers as Colin Cotterill, Matt Beynon Rees, Donna Leon, and Michael Dibdin. who have challenged our bias about exotic lands. Don’t pay into the bias they are writing another line of Lonely Planet guidebooks.

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