Are Your Defaults Optimizing for Good?

Have you ever wondered why you have to manually select defaults? Like, cold vs. warm water every time you wash your clothes? Cold water is way more cost and energy efficient. Many detergents are formulated for cold water. It is truly one of my pet peeves with the manufacturer of my washing machine. They didn’t default to making efficiency the easiest choice. Can you imagine the collective financial and environmental impact of just that one simple, cheap change?

In behavior change, defaults are incredibly powerful. Research has shown they are twice as effective as other behavior change interventions. For example, when Disney changed the default option in kids meals from fries to fruit and veggies and soda to juice, overall calories consumed dropped 21%, fat by 44% and sodium by 43%. You could still get fries and soda if you wanted to. People just didn’t bother as much.

Why do defaults work so well?  The first factor is that they maximize ease. Our brains are wired to put as much as possible on autopilot to save energy for critical mental tasks. If you also trust the provider of the default choice, then their default is immediately considered an endorsement of the “best” choice. The manufacturer of that washer must know that washing in cold is more efficient but they want us to wash in warm? That must mean the machine works better when it uses warm water, right?  Candidly, I don’t notice a difference at all.

This week, I heard one of the judges from Nudging for Good share a few case studies from finalists for their annual awards. These awards highlight brands who are nudging consumers towards more mindful, responsible and sustainable behavior. One of the entries changed kids food plates from plain white ceramic plates to fun painted plates that show how much of the plate should be vegetables vs. protein and starches. Use of these plates has driven a dramatic increase in vegetable intake among recipients.

It got me thinking about choice architecture and defaults in our workplaces and homes. What behaviors do we get, or not, simply because of the defaults. Some workplaces set up “smart meetings” as the default in their calendaring program so that people are better about starting/ending meetings on time. Some workplaces make participation in the 401K program the default choice. If the employee doesn’t want to participate, they have to actively opt out. Not shockingly, those workplaces with opt-out vs opt-in retirement programs have higher participation rates. Another company changed the positions of soda relative to water in a hospital cafeteria and saw a big increase in water sales and a corresponding decrease in soda sales.

So look around you this week and think like a behavior designer. Is there some product or service you use where the default isn’t the “best choice” when viewed through a purpose and impact lens. Could you change one of your own defaults in choice architecture, like making the bike easier to get to than the car? If you are responsible for designing products or services, are there defaults you can change to maximize impact?

And if you can’t find anything, I encourage you to go check your dishwasher, where the default is likely Heat Dry. Place a sticker that says “choose air dry.” It’s a default hack, but it works.

Quote of the Week: “First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

Richard Thaler

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