Defaults Matter

I will discuss defaults in depth when I begin writing about Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, but it is important to think about our responses to default choices in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s research in Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that we can think of our brains as having two different operating systems. System 1 is the fast and automatic system. It scans the environment, takes in the salient information around us, filters out the unimportant information, and makes quick judgements without putting too much power into the thinking process. System 2 is where System 1 sends the more difficult problems that it can’t handle on its own. System 1 takes the information it can absorb, packages that information with a particular reference frame, and sends it to System 2 for slower, more energy intensive thought. And this is where the defaults matter.


System 1 will fall back on the default when System 2 doesn’t want to engage with a problem. Because System 2 is energy intensive we only use it when we need to (like when we are cooking a new recipe, trying to complete our taxes, or trying to win scrabble). For most decisions, we can just fall back on the default and be fine. Instead of making a tough decision, we can rely on simple standard choices without having to consider alternatives or justify why we made a particular choice. Kahneman shows how powerful the default can be by examining the rates at which people register to be organ donors in different states and countries. He writes, “The best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check a box.”


For most decisions and thoughts, System 1 scans the environment and makes a quick judgment as to whether or not we need to do anything. If it determines that there is a need for more comprehensive thought, then it engages System 2, but it only packages the information it could take in during its quick scan. So while our System 2 is powerful and can work through lots of information, it can only work on the information from System 1’s quick scan. That quick scan includes the default option, but doesn’t include the various other options that were not immediately available. This can create anchoring effects and limit the categories we consider for possible alternatives from the default. When someone yells an answer in Family Feud and everyone else comes up with similar answers in the same category, we are seeing people anchor to a default category for responses. When your company enrolls you in a 401K and automatically sets your contribution limit, any change that you make is likely to be a small deviation from that preset level, you are not very likely to change all the way to 0 or make a huge deviation from that default anchor. Indeed, if you have ever been stopped in freeway traffic and only after stopping realized that you could have taken numerous different routes to avoid the traffic jam, you have seen how limiting our lives can be when we stick to a simple default and fail to consider the various other possibilities available to us.


The reason that defaults matter so much is because we are lazy, because System 2 doesn’t do much work if it doesn’t have to, and because System 2 gets a limited set of information from System 1. Our perspectives, opinions, and the world of possibilities available to us is anchored around the default. When I write about Nudge I will get more in depth with thinking about the importance of various defaults in different areas of our lives.

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