The death of defaults?

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. (Benartzi has a book on this topic, co-authored with Jonah Lehrer, coming out later this year.)

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?

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