The Power of Defaults


I recently was reminded of some fascinating research around the power of defaults in influencing human behavior. Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely has a good summary of some of the insights gained from the research (which I highly recommend reading here). Opt-out vs. opt-in has a major influence on the choices we make, in this case demonstrated by different organ donation selection options in different countries. I’ll reproduce the chart that delivers the punchline:


Quite a contrast, isn’t it? People’s willingness to stray from the default selection is clearly limited in this example. Yet we tend to think of ourselves in these situations with important decisions to make (what happens to your organs after you die) as invested enough to express our preferences. The impact of the default effect is evident in this example, and provides a stark contrast to our presumed ability to make choices for ourselves in all cases. It’s not to say that we don’t express our preferences at all, but in certain circumstances the default effect contributes much more strongly. Dan Ariely explains why so few people changed their selection from the default in this particular case:


While the evidence provided here is limited to one study of organ donation, the implications for how this could affect other important decisions in our lives is thought-provoking at the very least. When we think about our health, for example, do our everyday decisions for what to eat and how much to exercise follow a similar model of default inertia? Do some of our habits gain extra ammo from the fact that they concern our longevity? Does it become even harder to break those habits when faced with the knowledge that they will cause us to live shorter, unhealthier lives?

Chilling though those thoughts may be, I can’t help but wonder if changing those default behaviors can help use the power of default inertia in a positive way. Consider again the countries with higher organ donation rates using the opt-out design in their systems. Might there be ways to change our everyday decisions to “opt-out” and bring to bear the power of defaults for our benefit?

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