You’ve been through this before.

You’re watching an episode of Gossip Girl on Netflix, it finishes, and you’re suddenly prompted with a countdown before the next episode automatically starts.

A lot of the time, you find it hard to resist.

And so you watch the next episode.

And the next.

And so on.

I’ll be writing a post about Netflix in the near future but for now, you should know that we are suckers for going with the flow.

If there’s a default pre-set option of watching the next episode on Netflix, why not just sit back and watch it.

It’s the path of least psychological resistance.

You see, making decisions is annoying.

They’re annoying because they are psychologically effortful.

It takes time to make a decision. And there are so many options involved with making a one.

In deciding to watch another Netflix episode, the thought process goes something like this:

Hm, should I watch another one, I actually had something to do but maybe that could wait how long is another episode oh that should be fine maybe I should eat is it really bad that I flaked on Charlotte but then again if I watch it will I have enough time to…

And then the episode plays and the choice has been made for you.

In a sense, through your indecision – you’ve made a decision.

But other times, we just don’t even put in the effort to go through that internal monologue.

It requires us to summon our cognitive resources.

But because it’s in our nature to be cognitively lazy, we’ll just go with the flow when we can.

Buying Vietnamese soup

I was enjoying a steak and brisket pho with my brother.

Having Vietnamese soup with my brother had become somewhat of a ritual.

When we were done, I asked for the bill.

The waitress brings the bill and I realise that there’s more to pay this time around.

And then she explains.

“We added 50p to your bill but this will go to charity. Here, have this.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 15.41.54.png
You can see how long it took me to write this post…

It was at that moment that it hit me.

They’re using the behavioural economic principle of the default!

More importantly – I had a decision to make.

To donate or not to donate?

Organ Donation

How does the power of default options show up in real life?

Aside from Netflix, that is.

We can see defaults in the realm of organ donation, for instance.

Have a look at the chart below:

environment-design-organ-donors-1

It’s fascinating that some European countries managed to supercharge their organ donation rates while other countries failed miserably in doing so.
The countries that saw organ donation rates skyrocket used the power of defaults.
In those countries, people are by default opted-in to donating their organs when the time comes.
Of course, they have the liberty to opt-out. They’ll always have that option.
But, you know – they don’t.
Whereas countries that make people fill out a form and check a box  if they want to be organ donors, end up like the UK or Germany.
With organ donor rates of under 20%.
Making that decision is too psychologically effortful.
We just want to go with the flow.
What a cheap, affordable game-changer.
In a nutshell:

Countries that have introduced a default option of being “opted-in” of being an organ donor have a substantially higher rate of organ donors than countries in which people have to opt-in to be organ donors (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008; Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

Pension Schemes

Let’s face it – nobody thinks about retirement when they’re 20.

It’s fascinating that some European countries managed to supercharge their organ donation rates while other countries failed miserably in doing so.

The countries that saw organ donation rates skyrocket used the power of defaults.

In those countries, people are by default opted-in to donating their organs when the time comes.

Of course, they have the liberty to opt-out. They’ll always have that option.

But, you know – they don’t.

Whereas countries that make people fill out a form and check a box  if they want to be organ donors, end up like the UK or Germany.

With organ donor rates of under 20%.

Making that decision is too psychologically effortful.

We just want to go with the flow.

What a cheap, affordable game-changer.

In a nutshell:
Countries that have introduced a default option of being “opted-in” of being an organ donor have a substantially higher rate of organ donors than countries in which people have to opt-in to be organ donors (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008; Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

Or 30, for that matter.

Or 40.

Putting money towards a pension scheme at 30 so that you can have that money decades down the line (if you’re lucky) seems pointless, especially when you know that you can spend that cash on a new gadget or on a drunken night out with your mates…

It’s human nature, after all.

We want things now and we hate delaying gratification.

But when the government automatically puts away, say, £100 of your income every month into your account (i.e. pension scheme), then you just go with the flow.
Sure, you can opt-out.
But, you know – you don’t.

In fact, researchers Madrian and Shea found that having enrolment in pension schemes be introduced as the default option (i.e. being automatically “opted-in”) increased enrolment rates up to nearly 100% than if people were to actively opt-in.

Gee whiz!

The Psychology Behind Buying Pho

So what happened on that fateful day when I had pho soup with my brother?

It was the default option to donate an additional 50p, all of which the waitress promised me would go to charity (she did have a new watch the next time I went though…).

With my psychology background, I knew what was happening.

Obviously I went with the flow.

I also started performing mental gymnastics like:

Oh it’s just 50p it’s a good deed it’s going to charity 50p here 50p there and the charity gets to do a lot of good in the world and I can be a part of that change by sparing some change get it got it good I would’ve given to charity anyway

In situations with pre-set options, you start to rationalise, trying to convince yourself that the pre-set choice is the right one, even though you can always opt-out.

But there was another psychological layer to this transaction.

pho
via tomatom.com

Opting out is fine, but telling a waitress that you’d like to opt-out of paying 50p to charity requires nerves of steel.

Donating that 50p to charity is a social norm in that restaurant, and by choosing to opt-out you are breaking that norm – you’re a deviant.

Millenia ago, if you went against a social norm, you were considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous and were most likely killed or met with social exclusion.

So – in the restaurant, I could have technically opted-out.

But they psychologically strong-armed you into paying that 50p anyway.

Surely enough – I paid.

But only because I wanted to.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

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