In many decision situation there is a default choice. Many online forms already have a bubble selected as you scroll through, there are many opt-out clauses in hospital disclosures, and when you go to sign-up for a social media platform there are pre-set security and information sharing agreements and settings. These defaults can matter a lot, and sometimes they matter much more to someone other than the recipient of the default. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in Nudge, “note that not all defaults are selected to make the chooser’s life easier or better.”
Default selections are nudges because they shape the easiest choice path, what Sunstein and Thaler refer to as the path of least resistance. When a default has already been selected, the chooser doesn’t have to make a decision. Their non-decision still results in a choice being selected. The default is often the most popular option, even if it isn’t the best choice for anyone, because there is some cost to switching away. The cost is usually only time and effort, and normally a minimal amount of time and effort, but still, it is a cost that people won’t pay.
“If, for a given choice,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “there is a default option – an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing – then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them.”
Most of us probably agree that it isn’t in our best interest to allow Facebook to gather massive amounts of information about us to be sold to advertisers and political campaigns. However, the default settings for Facebook require us to opt-out of having our data sold. The process for finding the settings and opting out of targeted advertisements and having our data sold is hard to find, and the exact spot in the settings menu changes periodically. We lose time trying to find the right spots to check to get out of the default, and we can become frustrated if we can’t find the settings we are looking for. As a result, many people never change away from the data sharing default.
The Facebook example is a fairly nefarious use of defaults, but using defaults as nudges can be positive for individuals and societies as well. In 2019 the state I live in, Nevada, approved a new law which allows people to register to vote when completing anything they need at the DMV. By default, individuals over 18 who are eligible to vote are asked if they would like to register or update their registration. People don’t have to ask to update their voter registration, they don’t have to track down a website to update voter information, and they don’t have to hope someone approaches them in a parking lot with voter registration forms, it is a default option while doing regular paperwork at the DMV. Many states have a similar process with becoming an organ donor, where registering as an organ donor is the default option when applying for a state issued identification, requiring people to opt out of organ donor programs rather than opt in. States and countries with such systems have far more organ donors than states that don’t include people by default.
The path of least resistance created by nudges is important to consider. It can be a helpful way to encourage people to make decisions that are good for them and for society. At the same time, defaults can take advantage of laziness or forgetfulness. When we are not directly informed of the defaults that are being applied to us, we can end up in situations like the Facebook data sharing example above. As a result, questions about the default choice are often contentious, especially when a company’s business model requires a default that is not in the best interest of most people, or when a selected default can have political or moral dimensions.