Culture & Society

The Power of Doing Nothing

People love the default option. Why aren’t we using this instinct to better the world?

January 22, 2018

| by Dylan Walsh


A man lays on a bench. | Reuters/Thomas Peter

Stanford researchers explore the status quo bias. | Reuters/Thomas Peter

More than 8,000 Americans die every year while waiting for an organ transplant. This figure doesn’t reflect a lack of empathy so much as a lack of will: While 85% of Americans approve of organ donation, few actually bother to sign up as donors.

But what if rather than having to sign up to donate their organs, people donated by default? In other words, what if people had to opt out of giving rather than opt in? Other countries have tested this proposition with unambiguous results: More people donate organs, more lives are saved.

Academics have known about this default effect, or status quo bias, for decades. We tend to stick with what we’re given — an idea popularized in the 2008 book Nudge. If you offer a side dish of salad instead of fries, then people eat more salad. “But even though defaults could be a powerful force in setting policy, we don’t see them being implemented in any systematically consistent way,” says Margaret Neale, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Though the assumption had always been that reasonable people who are trying to influence others will use these nudges, this assumption had never been tested.”

Neale and three colleagues took it upon themselves to run the test — and the assumption, it turns out, is wrong.

Discovering Default Neglect

Neale, along with graduate students Julian Zlatev and Hajin Kim at Stanford, and David Daniels, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, ran a straightforward experiment in which two participants play a game. One player, the “choice architect,” was given two options. It was her job to make the second player, the “choice maker,” opt for one of these options over the other. Before presenting anything to the choice maker, however, the choice architect was able to select which option showed up as the default.


These are small changes in how we present decisions that can dramatically affect the quality of people’s lives, the quality of their communities and the larger world. But we don’t use defaults because we don’t realize in any kind of day-to-day environment how powerful these things are.
Margaret Neale

Given the well-established influence of status quo bias, “it seemed unimaginable that people wouldn’t use defaults,” says Zlatev, a doctoral candidate at Stanford GSB. He and his colleagues all expected choice architects to set their favored choice as the default. Other academics had the same intuition: In a survey of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, the vast majority of members — 90.1% — made the same prediction.

“But what we found when we looked across all of the studies was that people chose to set the desired option as the default roughly 50% of the time,” Zlatev says. These results held with little variation. Whether the choice architect was a business executive, medical student, or a non-professional, people never did much better than if they were choosing by simply flipping a coin. (Their findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

This result, termed “default neglect,” was especially surprising, given that many of the participants, in a separate survey, demonstrated a partial intuitive grasp of reasons why defaults can sway individual choices. For example, in one study participants were asked how laziness affected people’s susceptibility to defaults, and they predicted that lazy people were more likely to stick with defaults. When participants were simply asked about defaults, however, they failed to predict that people would stick with defaults, ignoring what they knew about the power of laziness. Why?

“If you prompt people about specific reasons why people tend to stick with defaults, then they’re more likely to give you a reasonable answer,” says Daniels, who graduated from the GSB in 2017. But most of the decisions we make aren’t based on prompts. “When left to their own devices, choice architects didn’t seem to spontaneously consider why people might be susceptible to defaults.”

Spreading the Word

The existence of default neglect represents a huge missed opportunity, according to Neale. “These are small changes in how we present decisions that can dramatically affect the quality of people’s lives, the quality of their communities and the larger world,” she says. “But we don’t use defaults because we don’t realize in any kind of day-to-day environment how powerful these things are.”

The implications are twofold. First, governments and companies ought to actively engage with experts when structuring key policies. Britain’s Behavioral Insights Team exemplifies the value of a centralized authority on decision-making. Launched in 2010, the BIT was given two years to prove itself by saving the government at least 10 times its running cost. Not only did the group far exceed this expectation, but it did so while developing critical initiatives that did things like boost retirement savings and lift college aspirations. This kind of program, though, remains relatively scarce.

Second, the power of defaults must be broadcast more widely and persistently. Though Nudge was a New York Times bestseller, and though many related books have appeared since its publication, a few thousand words in a few dozen books don’t magically sublimate into the widespread adoption of ideas. Academics, argues Neale, have failed to present status quo bias in a way that fully engages policymakers.

“We assumed that if we showed it they would come,” she says. “In fact, nobody showed up to the game. They didn’t even know there was a game going on.”

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