The death of defaults?


Jason Collins


February 9, 2015

Late last year I went to a presentation by Schlomo Benartzi on how people think differently when they are using a screen. The punchline was that many of the classic behavioural biases do not play out as expected in digital mediums.

One example Benartzi gave involved defaults. The standard understanding is that defaults are powerful ways to influence behaviour - people will tend to stick to them. But Benartzi spoke of digital experiments with pre-populated checkboxes where people went out of their way to untick the box. The default backfired.

Why does this occur? I suggest a starting point should be our experience with defaults. Online retailers know the power of defaults, and regularly pre-populate checkboxes to join their mailing list or buy add-ons such as insurance. Generally, the default is a crap option. (Look at Dark Patterns for a pile of examples.) So what does someone with experience do? You scan every pre-populated checkbox to see whether you are being lumped with something you don’t want. If unsure, uncheck it.

As we are moving to a world where most interactions with government will be digital, will the power of defaults be lost? Will we untick the “register as an organ donor” or “save 3 per cent of you salary” boxes due to a newly acquired habit? And what other “nudges” will we resist when we learn that many nudgers don’t have our best interests at heart?