Difficult Emotional Decision? Just Take the Default

Here’s a fascinating behavioral account (decisions are not logical they are psychological) of how people decide whether to donate their organs or not. It’s written by Dan Ariely who calls himself a “behavioral economist” and touts his ideas in his book Predictably Irrational.

His hypothesis is that when faced with a difficult emotional we tend to take the default position (rather than select an option). The huge differences in rates of participation seem to be due to whether the form asked whether the individual wanted to opt-in to the program or opt-out.

Note:

  • When the form asks to opt-in, then the default choice is to opt-out, and that’s what most people do in that circumstance.
  • When the form asks to opt-out, then the default choice is to opt-in, and that’s what most people do in that circumstance.

The graph below speaks volumes:

Organ Donations

So, what could explain these differences? It turns out that it is the design of the form at the DMV. In countries where the form is set as “opt-in” (check this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program) people do not check the box and as a consequence they do not become a part of the program. In countries where the form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program) people also do not check the box and are automatically enrolled in the program. In both cases large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

You might think that people do this because they don’t care. That the decision about donating their organs is so trivial that they can’t be bothered to lift up the pencil and check the box. But in fact the opposite is true. This is a hard emotional decision about what will happen to our bodies after we die and what effect it will have on our those close to us. It is because of the difficulty and the emotionality of these decisions that they just don’t know what to do so they adopt the default option (by the way this also happens to physicians making medical decisions, and also to people making investment and retirement decisions).

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2 thoughts on “Difficult Emotional Decision? Just Take the Default

  1. Note that the graph you show is reprinted in Ariely’s excellent book, but is originally from Johnson EJ, Goldstein D. 2003. Do defaults save lives? Science, 302 (21 November 2003).

    In that articles, the authors also provide a psychological experiment demonstrating the same effect.

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  2. Pingback: A Roundup of May Posts « pasadena therapist

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