Set It and Forget It: How Default Settings Rule the World

Lena Groeger at ProPublica: “We’ve seen how design can keep us away from harm and save our lives. But there is a more subtle way that design influences our daily decisions and behavior – whether we know it or not. It’s not sexy or trendy or flashy in any way. I’m talking about defaults.

Defaults are the settings that come out of the box, the selections you make on your computer by hitting enter, the assumptions that people make unless you object, the options easily available to you because you haven’t changed them.

They might not seem like much, but defaults (and their designers) hold immense power – they make decisions for us that we’re not even aware of making. Consider the fact that most people never change the factory settings on their computer, the default ringtone on their phones, or the default temperature in their fridge. Someone, somewhere, decided what those defaults should be – and it probably wasn’t you.

Another example: In the U.S. when you register for your driver’s license, you’re asked whether or not you’d like to be an organ donor. We operate on an opt-in basis: that is, the default is that you are not an organ donor. If you want to donate your organs, you need to actively check a box on the DMV questionnaire. Only about 40 percent of the population is signed up to be an organ donor.

In other countries such as Spain, Portugal and Austria, the default is that you’re an organ donor unless you explicitly choose not to be. And in many of those countries over 99 percent of the population is registered. A recent study found that countries with opt-out or “presumed consent” policies don’t just have more people who sign up to be donors, they also have consistently higher numbers of transplants.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors that influence the success of organ donation systems, but the opt-in versus opt-out choice seems to have a real effect on our collective behavior. An effect that could potentially make the difference between someone getting a life-saving transplant or not.

Behavioral economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein pretty much wrote the book on the implications of defaults on human behavior. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness is full of ways in which default options can steer human choices, even if we have no idea it’s happening. Besides organ donation, the list of potential “nudges” include everything from changing the order of menu itemsto encourage people to pick certain dishes to changing the default temperature of office thermostats to save on energy.

But my favorite has to do with getting kids to eat their vegetables.

What if I told you there was one simple change you could make in a school cafeteria to get children to eat more salad? It doesn’t cost anything, force anyone to eat anything they don’t want, and it takes only a few minutes to fix. And it happened in real life: a middle school in New York moved their salad bar away from its default location against a walland put it smack in the middle of the room (and prominently in front of the two cash registers, as seen in the diagram below). Salad sales more than tripled….(More)”