Study shows Status Quo Bias to be an impediment to Active Travel schemes

The Economic & Social Research Institute in Dublin have published research – supported by the National Transport Authority – that suggests people’s preference for the status quo makes them more antagonistic towards proposed new developments such as active travel schemes.

Participants – a large, nationally representative sample – were provided with details of design schemes for a town in which cycling and walking infrastructure had been prioritised over that for driving. Randomly, the participants were told that the design scheme they were reading about was either i) a plan for future development or ii) already in existence somewhere.

arq, town planning, 1a

The description began: ‘Please imagine a mid-sized town in Ireland. On the main street there is a mix of shops, restaurants, office buildings, pubs and residential buildings. There is a local school and library close to the town centre. Families, students, business owners and retirees all live in the town.’

At this point, the two descriptions diverge: ‘The town has a layout that makes it easy to walk and cycle to most places people need to go. Pedestrians and cyclists are prioritised over motor traffic. Instead of two-way car traffic on the main street there is a one-way car lane with segregated lanes for cycling on each side…’

While in the alternate reality: ‘There is a proposal for a new layout of the town to make it easy for people to walk and cycle to most places they need to go. Pedestrians and cyclists would be prioritised over motor traffic. The plan is to change the main street, which currently has two-way car traffic, into a one-way car lane with segregated lanes….’

Having read this, the participants were faced with 12 topics relating to the scheme, from which they could chose six to access more detailed information.  

It was found that if the participants believed they were talking about a future scheme they were more critical of it than if they believe it already existed. They also asked more questions about the scheme and focussed on potential downsides. 

People discussing a planned scheme looked for potential negatives, such as impacts on businesses and construction time while those talking abut an exiting scheme tended to look for positives.

Those who had been describe the planned scheme were more likely to want more information about ‘effects on businesses’ (70% v 55%) while those who believe the scheme already existed were more likely to want to know about  ‘effects on health’ (29% v 19%).

The study speculates: ‘From this perspective, SQB acts like an inbuilt defence against the “law of unintended consequences”, as people instinctively interrogate purposive actions differently from mere evaluation of the relevant options.’ 

It suggests that ‘A potential avenue for future research is to try to nullify SQB by explicitly asking people to first consider positive aspects of a plan, or negatives with the current system.’



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