Success by Default in 3 Simple Steps

Behavioural insights can help harness the surprising power of default options.

Posted Apr 12, 2019

Let’s face it—most human beings are inherently and incurably lazy. Being burdened with an overload of information and decisions to make, we frequently pick the easiest options.

Bruce Mars / Pexels
Tap into the power of defaults to increase personal success
Source: Bruce Mars / Pexels

Personally, I often find myself watching one mindless YouTube video after another, because the next one keeps playing automatically. And surely there’s no harm in watching just one more video of funny animals right? (NB: One of my all-time favourites is this recording of an Elvis-loving cockatoo). I also have the same boring ring tone as approximately 90 percent of the population, because I can’t be bothered to change the standard settings of my phone. Finally, not once in my life have I made deliberate adjustments to the default terms of my travel insurance—simply because I’m too lazy to read the boring small print.

The Power of Defaults

Human laziness and inertia in the face of choice overload are the reason why we’re so susceptible to default options. This term refers to standard settings or pre-set options, which automatically come into effect unless we actively make a decision otherwise. Imagine you just purchased a new computer. No doubt that it'll be delivered with a standard desktop background, default programmes, and many basic systems settings. The existing defaults don’t restrict your choices. You do have the option to upload cheesy cat pictures as your desktop wallpaper. You can even change them at an hourly rate. However, with many people finding themselves too busy (or undecided) to personalise their computer displays, the default settings stick more often than not. And if you were one of the many people staring at the Windows XP wallpaper of green rolling hills for several years, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

With defaults being present in many of our daily decision situations, they are powerful determinants of our choices, yet they often go unnoticed. For example, did you know that legal defaults are responsible for international differences in the choices to become an organ donor? In many European countries like France, Belgium and Portugal, citizens are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless they explicitly opt out of the arrangement. In other countries like the UK and Germany, it’s the other way around: Unless you sign a form to “opt in,” your organs cannot be donated upon your death. These different default options have surprisingly large influences, with a near-100 percent of the French population being registered donors as compared to a meager 12 percent in Germany. Is this because Germans are generally opposed to saving their fellow citizens’ lives? This is highly unlikely, as surveys suggest similar attitudes to organ donation across Europe. Instead, it is mere laziness, which appears to be at the bottom of this difference. The added effort of filling in additional forms and requesting an opt-in prevents more Germans from becoming donors.

Success by Default

Defaults are part of what behavioural economists call the choice architecture, which steers our decisions in specific directions. Hence, they have been conceptualised as a type of behavioural nudge, which can be used strategically to influence decision making. Do you ever struggle with making choices or do you suffer from decision inertia? Not to worry—it's possible to harness the power of defaults to increase personal decision success, provided you follow these simple steps.

1. Spot existing defaults.

Identify existing defaults by asking yourself about the consequence of not making a choice. Is there a pre-set option that will come into effect? As an example, consider the choice of beverage when eating out. In most cases, not choosing a drink will result in not receiving one (d’oh!). However, what about those meal deals offered at many fast food restaurants? They usually include sugary soft drinks as default beverages. So even if you fail to make an active choice about your drink, you’ll end up with a coke.

2. Question the purpose of defaults.

Once you have identified a default, ask yourself about its purpose and who it was created by. Some defaults are necessary to ensure processes can run smoothly even if no active choice was made. An example are default regulations about divorce: Even if a couple failed to sign a prenuptial agreement, their split of possessions in case of divorce will be possible due to national default laws. Other defaults were designed to speed up decisions. After all, would you really want to make hundreds of detailed choices about your new computer’s systems settings before being able to use it? Finally, there is a large category of self-serving defaults, often created by companies to manipulate you into spending your hard-earned money. My personal pet peeve are fixed-term subscription packages, which come with automatic renewal unless you cancel within their (very narrow!) time frame. If you aren’t careful, you end up paying for another year’s subscription of the yoga sports magazine you never really wanted in the first place.

3. Create your own defaults.

The final step involves putting your knowledge to use and creating your very own automated processes to nudge yourself in the right direction. The online environment in particular might lend itself to the strategic setting of defaults. A great example are social media, which (despite their tempting lure) offer many options to personalise settings for automatic systems responses. Did you know you can disable the autoplay of YouTube videos in your account? Similarly, Facebook and Twitter allow you to specify the number and types of notifications you want to receive, thus helping to control the frequency of distracting pop-up noises and messages on your various screens. At work, automatic email signatures, regular meeting dates and default reminders of upcoming deadlines can make your life a little easier. Personally, I use carefully-placed calendar reminders as nudges to cancel fixed-term subscription packages on the very last day before automatic renewal.

At the end of the day, it’s about being creative and identifying your personal need for defaults. Do you have your own list of clever tricks to harness the power of defaults? If so, please share them in the comments below!

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