Defaults Are Not the Same by Default [Jachimowicz et el.]

Thoughtful behavioral design is a required prerequisite for the effectiveness of any organizational policy or program. Mindful use of defaults is a hallmark of good behavioral design. But not all defaults are created equal. 

A team led by Jon Jachimowicz set out to conduct a meta-analysis on the effectiveness of defaults and summarized their academic paper in this more readable blog post: 

Defaults Are Not the Same by Default

Overall the team looked at 58 default studies with a total sample size of 73,675 participants. On average, they found defaults were a strong choice architecture tool, shifting decisions by 0.63 to 0.68 standard deviations: in decisions where there are two possible options, the option that is preselected is on average chosen 27 percent more often than the option that is not preselected. Given that other behavioral interventions tend to shift decisions by 0.2 to 0.3 standard deviations, defaults, on average, were two times more effective. But averages only tell part of the story, since the effectiveness of specific default interventions varied greatly. From significantly more than average effectiveness to not effective at all.  

The team then set out to identify what drives effective defaults using the 3Es (endorsement, ease, endowment) as their starting point: 

  • They reflect an implicit endorsement from the choice architect.
  • Staying with the defaulted choice is easier than switching away from it.
  • They endow decision makers with an option, meaning they’re less likely to want to give it up, now that it’s theirs.

In their analysis, they found that studies that were designed to trigger endorsement or endowment were more likely to be effective. The other aspect that impacts the effectiveness of default is the intensity and the distribution of the decision makers’ underlying preferences. When decision makers care less about a particular choice, a default may be more persuasive in swaying their decision. Likewise, when preferences within a population are more varied, such that some people may have preferences that align with the default, but many people may not, then a default may be less effective.

Defaults Are Not the Same by Default [Jachimowicz et el.]

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