“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
There’s a hidden force that rules the world. It dictates the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the jobs we work, the people that we love, and it controls our mind by reducing our imagination to a fraction of its capabilities. No, I’m not spewing nonsense about the illuminati, government chips, or all-powerful aliens — I’m talking about the status quo and the biases we all have towards it.
Status quo bias is a default preference for the current state. This may sound like a mostly harmless practice but when individual status quo biases combine to form our external reality we unknowingly build barriers. And because these barriers limit our ability to think critically, most of us never notice them and blissfully go through life thinking it is perfectly acceptable to eat donuts for breakfast but not cookies even though they are equally unhealthy.
Of course these biases go well beyond the food we eat for breakfast, they distort our perceptions of ourselves and mold us towards conformity. And by the time we are old enough to realize it, much of the damage cannot be undone.
Our limitations begin before we are even born. If a doctor performs an ultrasound and sees a penis, your family starts to buy blue clothes, football jerseys, and “ladies man” t-shirts. If the doctor sees a vagina, the baby will have a plethora of pink dresses and doll sets awaiting its arrival to the world. Once the child is born the messaging heats up, female babies are constantly told they are cute while male babies are strong. This messaging will continue for the rest of child’s life. Women should dance. Men should play sports. Men should be stoic. Women should be emotional. Women should take care of the children. Men should earn money. Men should drive the car. Women should do the dishes. And so on and so on and so on.
These status quo biases run so deep that when Harry Styles wore a dress on a magazine cover, some people called it the end of society. How broken are our brains that a man wearing a piece of cloth with no fabric on the interior of the leg makes so many people feel so angry? This is just one example out of millions that illustrate how modern society is built on gender norms. For further reading I highly recommend Alok Vaid-Menon’s book Beyond the Gender Binary.
Still, the stuff between your infant legs does not simply limit how society tells you to act but also who it tells you to love. As a young child I only ever saw examples of cisgender men with cisgender women in both my personal life and in the media. I still remember when I learned that a man could love another man for the first time on a bus ride home from school. At first my brain struggled with the idea, the early childhood messaging had already restricted my adolescent brain. I did not think of it as a bad thing, just an unfamiliar idea. Society quickly corrected me and from about 4th grade on “being gay is bad” is perhaps the strongest and most consistent message I received. “Gay” and was literally used as a word that meant “bad.” Homophobia was rampant and widely tolerated.
After years of intentionally undoing this messaging, I now understand that a man loving a man is no different than a man loving a woman. In the end, presumed sexuality is just another harmful gender norm.
Confrontations of these status quo biases naturally lead to imagining a world without them. What would it be like to raise children in a society that offered them a completely blank canvas instead of a paint by numbers?
A 2017 episode of Hidden Brain tells the story of parents attempting to raise their child free of gender norms since 2001. The child is biologically a female and from the moment she is born, the world attempts to limit her potential. While their commitment to raising their child in a gender neutral way is noble, most of the world rejects them as politically correct hippies — they lose friends and family along the way. As I listened to the story, I found myself wondering….is all of this worth it? Even if they are right, there are real human costs for refusing to conform.
And then at the end of the episode, you meet Isis, their 16 year old daughter. She introduces herself confidently, announcing her pronouns and sexuality upfront. Her approach to life seems uninhibited and she seems genuinely happy. She is wise beyond her years.
I remember the first time I listened to the podcast episode, and after Isis spoke I knew that if I ever had children I would attempt to shield them from and cancel out society’s gender norm brain washing. I believe the long-term goal should be a genderless society and that will begin with the proper messaging to the future generations.
There are other examples less extreme than gender and sexuality and I should be clear that not all status quos are inherently wrong, the point is not to accept them as the default. For example, our society defaults to monogamy. Maybe having one exclusive romantic and sexual partner is the best choice for some people, but we all should consider the alternatives before unconsciously accepting the status quo. This thought process goes for all of our individual choices.
Status quo bias also upholds many of our political and economic institutions. The United States Senate for example, is an objectively horrible and undemocratic institution that gives Wyomans 70 times the representation of Californians. Yet, even in progressive circles, every time I suggest we abolish the Senate, I am met with immediate pushback and anger. People do not even realize that they are defending the institution simply because it has always been there. Imagine we had a unicameral legislature and someone suggested we add a second chamber where one group with 40 million people and another group with 600,000 would get the exact same amount of votes. That person would be laughed out of the room, but because the Senate already exists, people are willing to defend it.
Other ideas such as border, prison, or police abolition seem so radical because people cannot imagine alternatives. But these ideas are actually very rational once you consider them outside of your status quo biases. Migration is a human right. No human should ever be locked in a cage. Armed agents of the state should not patrol our neighborhoods. These are reasonable statements once you stop casually accepting the status quo.
Yet even when you as an individual are able to overcome status quo biases you are still not free of them. You will still find it difficult to find hot cookies at 9 am or dresses that fit your body type. And you cannot ensure yourself equal voting representation. Thus, individuals must also demand more from their peers.
Moving society beyond the status quo will be extremely difficult. There isn’t one bad guy pulling all the levers. We are all pulling multiple different levers everyday. Status quo bias is not just all around us, it is deep inside our minds and we unconsciously contribute to its cyclicality. Still, a better world is possible, we can be levers of change by simply opening our minds and demanding others to the same — we can see the world not as it is, but as it should be!