OPINION27 March 2023

Defaults are not always the silver bullet

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Behavioural science Impact Opinion Trends

Crawford Hollingworth explains why defaults aren't always what they're made out to be in behavioural science.

Hand adjusting a heating thermostat with temperature displayed as 18

Defaults are sometimes considered the poster child of behavioural science because they are one of the surest ways of changing people’s behaviour.

The concept of creating a default option or changing the default option is one of the most powerful nudges in any behavioural scientist’s toolbox; the idea that when people are presented with a predetermined default option, or are automatically enrolled, they tend to accept it. Examples range from default passwords (few ever change their Wi-Fi password) and browsers, to standard insurance packages.

We accept the status quo and go with the flow, without considering other options or investigating further, often because we see the default as an implicit recommendation, either because it’s the option most people would choose or it’s the option suggested by experts.

Broadly, behavioural scientists have found that default settings are likely to be most effective when:

  • The default is seen as an implicit recommendation
  • The decision is complex and unfamiliar
  • The individual does not have ...