One of the biggest fallacies in human nature is that we often think our choices define who we are. While often the choice has already been made for us.

One of the biggest fallacies in human nature is that we often think our choices define who we are. A lot of the time, humans don’t intend to make choices. It’s not because we’re lazy, hesitant, or indecisive, rather, it’s because depending on the context, sometimes the best choice has already been made for us.

Humans don’t have an unlimited energy supply. We get hungry, physically and mentally tired, and grow old. Mistakes are costly, especially back when our most advanced invention was fire and we’rent the top of the food chain. It was energetically expensive to take the wrong turn, go down the wrong path, and be ill prepared. Energy doesn’t appear out of thin air so why waste it? Indeed, evolution agrees. The species that survived, survived partly because the decisions they made didn’t cost them more energy than what they had. We evolved (and our close cousins to an extent) a part of the brain that allows us to think and plan ahead, and make informed decisions. But sometimes those decisions are already made for us, and all we have to do is to do nothing. These are called  — an option that is automatically selected for us.

In “Don’t Make Me Think,” Steve Krug argues that in order for web pages or apps to be effective they need to be self-evident and self-explanatory. But what if you websites or apps that also “did the thinking for you?. Contextually aware interfaces that use default options are the future of . But part of implementing default options is knowing when to refrain from using them. Sometimes consumers want (and need) to make active choices.

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

Why do we default to the default?

The underlying problem with explaining human behavior is the inherent complexity of pinpointing the exact psychological triggers. Default options are no exception. There are a plethora of triggers that cause people to default, but I’ll begin with the simplest and most well-known biases to establish a basic foundation of understanding.

Reference points and Loss Aversion:

It’s important to view defaults through the lens of system one — our emotional, automatic and subconscious decision-making system. Selecting the default choice, or not making a choice, is an automatic behavior that doesn’t involve expending any effort to actively assess and make a choice. What lies at the heart of this can be explained in one of the most cited papers of all time, Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk by Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. In the paper, Kahneman and Tversky propose Prospect Theory as an alternative theory to the generally accepted theory of utility. In reality, people do not make objective decisions — we’re prone to biases in our own perceptions and thought process. The foundational idea behind Prospect Theory was that people don’t judge the utility of wealth based on states of wealth, rather people judge the utility based on gains and losses. We set a reference point in our head and make decisions based on that reference point. An important learning from their research, and very important to understanding default options, is that when faced with uncertainty losses loom twice as much as gains. That is, it takes about a two hundred dollar gain to offset the psychological effects of losing one hundred. Why this is important will come into consideration in the next section.


Defaults and Donations Decisions by Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein is really the first paper to shine light on the power of default options and has influenced a few countries to append their healthcare systems to reflect how people actually make highly important decisions about their healthcare options. The authors began with two observations that shaped their research. The first was on how framing led to two different outcomes in how people chose auto insurance plans in the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both states were trying to tackle the problem of rising auto insurance costs due to fraud. They gave their citizens two options. The first was a “limited tort plan” that covered medical costs but removed the right to sue for difficult to prove medical claims. The other was a “high tort plan that covered medical costs and provided the right to see for pain and suffering. The idea was that honest drivers would select the “low tort” plan. New Jersey selected the “low tort” plan as the default while Pennsylvania chose the opposite. The difference turned out to be dramatic. 79% New Jersey of drivers preferred the “low tort” option while 70% of Pennsylvania preferred the “high tort” option. The second observation involved how Americans don’t save enough for retirement. When one firm raised the default for employees to save towards their income from 0% to 3%, the percentage of people who save more increased. Surprisingly, however, the default decreased the amount of people electing to save more than 3%, which raised the question of what is an optimal default option? The authors hypothesis was that people don’t have well-articulated preferences before they make a decision, and that education and incentives are not cost-effective measures to inform choices. (This is important to note and I’ll keep referring back to it throughout this paper.)

They wanted to confirm this hypothesis with an online test on organ donations. One hundred and sixty-one participants were assigned to either three situations with varying defaults. The opt-in condition painted a scenario where participants were told to assume that they moved to a new state and the default was not to be an organ donor (meaning they had to actively choose to become one). The opt-out condition told participants they moved to a new state where the default option was to be an organ donor. The third condition was neutral condition with no default. The default made a dramatic difference with donation rates being twice as high when opting-out (actively choosing not to donate) as opting-in.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

A Framework for using defaults in design:

If reference points, loss aversion, and framing (all closely tied) represent the underlying cognitive mechanics, then what Johnson and Goldstein concluded, the inability to articulate or construct preferences, provides a framework how to on how to think about using default choices in user-centered design.

First, we can think of defaults as “validated suggestions” or what some behavioral psychologists call “informational signals.” When you lack either time or knowledge to make an informed choice, the default signals the right choice to the user. For instance, while in an fMRI machine, participants were asked to play a tennis line judgment game. Acting as the line judge participants had to judge whether the ball was in or out, with the default choice set to “in. As the task became more complex — the ball inching closer to the line — the participants chose the default choices more often (Interesting to note that the frontal cortex — the part of the brain associated with executive controls and higher order decision making — became more active when the participant rejected the default, suggesting some sort of neurological marker for active choosing). Lacking the information to make an educated call, the participant relied on the default to guide his or her choice

The implication here for design is two-fold. You first need to know how familiar your audience is with the content. If your audience is not well versed in the subject than default choices become more valuable. Which brings me to the second point: the audience needs to trust you to feel comfortable to make the choice for you. If they don’t trust you, they will be less likely let you make the choice for them.

Second, making any decision involves “effort.” Decisions come with multiple transaction costs. For example, the transaction costs for using the Uber app involves taking out your phone, opening the app, deciding what type of car, time for the system to respond, and waiting for the car to arrive. All these little transaction costs take the effort to overcome, and even the tiniest of transaction costs can make a huge difference. For example, according to a study done by Akamai, nearly half of all web users expect a page to load in two seconds or less. What’s remarkable is that around forty percent of users will drop off your web page if it loads slower than three seconds! And it’s not just in an online setting, researchers found out that when grocery shoppers were more likely to redeem their coupons off jam when they were presented with six vs twenty-four varieties.

Even the sequence of attributes order can affect whether people will choose the default option. When researchers presented participants with product attributes with a high number of options followed by product attributes with a low number of options (high-to-low), they chose the default option more often than when presented with a low-to-high sequence. Presenting the high-low sequence depleted the participants energy sources, leaving them “fatigued” and making default options in the second decision sequence appear more attractive.

Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, delineates between two types of effort. The first type is the effort it takes to focus on the actual problem and what information the default option signals. The second type, and arguably more important, is the effort in forming a preference. This is where the default becomes very important, because if we use it as an “information signal” then it allows us to form our preference without having to put any additional effort into choosing.

When energy sources are fatigued, default options provide a shortcut, or “cheat” to the right selecting answer. Saving the user from having to invest anymore effort. The implication here is that when asking a user to complete a long arduous task, default options will help them conserve their energy. Think of them as markers that can help your users navigate from Task A to B in the shortest route possible.

Last, Johnson and Goldstein conclude that defaults represent an existing state or status quo and involve a choice tradeoff. This tendency in decision making to keep our existing state, or what behavioral psychologist call “the status quo bias” was first confirmed when researchers asked participants to act as a decision maker in hypothetical investing scenarios. When participants were presented with a neutral scenario (no existing state) to either invest money in a low-risk company A or a high risk, but more likely to return a higher value, participants were more likely to pick the lower risk company. However when they were told their money was already invested in company B, the higher risk option, they were more likely to keep their money with that company. The status quo bias could help explain why the participants in the donor study were more likely to stick with the default choice. Although the type of choice differed — financial vs health — they had an equal level of importance or salience. For the participants who’s default was non-donor, changing their status meant involving a tradeoff between a “gain of satisfaction” and a loss of negative imagery. For the participants defaulted into being a donor, the opt-out meant a tradeoff between losing the satisfaction of donating, while gaining the freedom from negative imagery.

The status quo bias explains another behavioral phenomena called the endowment effect. The endowment effect explains why we overvalue the things we own. But what’s more interesting about this effect is that we overvalue things we “feel” we own. This was first discovered by Dan Ariely, James Heyman, and Yesim Orhun at the University of Chicago in a mock online auction study. The researchers found that when the auction ended, whoever were the highest bidders for the longest period of time felt the strongest feelings of ownership. Why is this important to default options? In most studies done on the endowment effect participants actively make the choices, whereas with default choices, we don’t actively choose because someone else does the choosing for us. The mere fact of feeling ownership over a choice is still powerful enough for us to overvalue it! The implication here is if you are using defaults, make sure the user feels a sense of ownership over the default choice. This will make it harder for them to opt-out.

Why default options are important to the future of User-centered design?

People are bombarded every min with either emails, notification, text messages, and longer forms of content. We don’t have the capacity to absorb and process everything we consume. Nicholas Carr coined this The Shallows: we’ve become information skimmers, unable to dive down deep into content, interpret it, make rich connections and form preferences. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more information that gushes out of the web, the harder it will become to form a preference. But as we learned earlier, preferences might not have a huge on how we decide. What really matters is context and situational factors. Information may be power, but when it comes down to making decisions, context will have a greater affect on what options we choose. For instance, while testing out seminary students, researchers discovered that the biggest determining factor for helping a person was whether that student was in a hurry to give a sermon. The overall point is that consumers will need to rely on contextual markers like default rules to navigate the rising oceans of information. This means that UX designers will need to move beyond designing the right design to designing for the right decisions.

References in order of mention

Krug, Steve (2014) Dont Make me Think

Kahneman, D and Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica, 47(2), pp 263–291.

Johnson, E and Goldstein, D. (2004). Defaults and Donation Decisions. Transplantation, 78: 1713–1716

Fleming, S. Thomas, C. and Dolan, R. (2010). Overcoming Status quo bias in the human brain. PNAS, 107(13) 6005–6009.

How Loading Time Affects Your Bottom Line

Levav, J. Heitmann, M. Hermann, A. Iyengar, S. (2010) Order in Product Customization Decisions: Evidence from Field Experiments. Journal of Political Economy, vol 118, no 2: 274–299.

Sunstein, C. (2014). Choosing Not to Choose. Oxford University Press. 36–37

Samuelson, W. Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status Quo Bias in Decision Making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1:7–59.

Heyman, J. Orhun, Y. Ariely, D. (2004). Auction Fever: The Effect of Opponents and Quasi-Endowment on Product Valuations. Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol 18, no. 4: 7–21.

Carr, Nicholas. (2008) “Is Google Making us Stupid?” The Atlantic.

Nisbett, R. Ross, L. (1991) The Person and the Situation. Pinter & Martin. 33–34

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