The Power of Default



In this talk, Dan Ariely is trying to make a point about 'irrational decision making'. But it seems to me that the main connecting idea between his examples is the power that a default choice has upon the decisions we make.

Problem No. 1
If you were given a form to check on your driver's liscence that said,
"Check the box if you wish to donate organs" Would you check it?

When you're presented with this choice, do you know what to do?
Is it something you've thought about a lot in your life?
How do you feel about this choice?
Is this a choice you want to think about?


How about, if you were given a form to check on your driver's license that said,
"Check the box if you do not wish to donate organs" Would you check it?

Dan Ariely says that people choose the default "because we care. It's difficult and it's complex. And it's so complex that we don't know what to do. And because we have no idea what to do we just pick whatever it was that was chosen for us."
Do you agree or disagree?


Problem No. 2
Here is a case study of a patient. He is a 67-year-old farmer. He's been suffering from a right hip pain for a while. And then they said to the physician, "You decided a few weeks ago that nothing is working for this patient. All these medications, nothing seems to be working. So you refer the patient to hip replacement therapy. Hip replacement. Okay?" So the patient is on a path to have his hip replaced. And then they said to half the physicians, they said, "Yesterday you reviewed the patient's case and you realized that you forgot to try one medication. You did not try ibuprofen. What do you do? Do you pull the patient back and try ibuprofen? Or do you let them go and have hip replacement?"

The other group of the physicians, they said, "Yesterday when you reviewed the case you discovered there were two medications you didn't try out yet, ibuprofen and piroxicam." And they said, "You have two medications you didn't try out yet. What do you do? You let them go. Or you pull them back. And if you pull them back do you try ibuprofen or piroxicam? Which one?"

This decision makes it as easy to let the patient continue with hip replacement. But pulling them back, all of the sudden becomes more complex. There is one more decision. What happens now? The majority of the physicians now choose to let the patient go to hip replacement.

The thing is is that no physician would ever say, "Piroxicam, ibuprofen, hip replacement. Let's go for hip replacement." But the moment you set this as the default it has a huge power over whatever people end up doing.

In the first scenario, they had a simple decision to make, so they pulled back and said, ok, just give them ibuprofin.

But, in the second scenario, when the physician was told, "you didn't try giving them ibuprofin or piroxicam," they would just let them go on to hip replacement. One extra layer of decision was too much, so they went to the default.



There's two other examples he gives in the talk, one about picking hotels, one about picking people for a date. Also, there's the story of the economist ad.



"We don't know our preferences that well, so we're susceptible to these outside influences, such as dead options or defaults."
Agree or disagree?


So, let's talk about the power of default in culture, meaning in terms of cultural norms.

What are some normal things--the 'cultural defaults'--in society, in terms of…
how to earn a living
choice of partner
how to educate your children
spiritual beliefs


What I thought about after listening to this talk is that "the default" is basically the water you're swimming in at the time of the decision. It can be the standard behaviour expected in a group of people. It can be the assumptions presented on a form, or in giving a choice, like the soda choice in Sheena Iyengar's talk.
I think that when we're having discussions about racism, or sexism, or other kinds of social change, you're running up against people's assumptions about what the default should be.
So after thinking all this through, I wonder, why is it so hard to challenge a default assumption?

Bringing the discussion to our 'designing the world' discussion of the past few meetings:
If you're designing the world how does this business of 'the default' factor in?
How does one design a world around the influence of cultural norms so as to allow people maximum freedom to be themselves?
How does one design a world that makes it easy for people to make decisions that include wider self-interest?

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