Default Effect: You could be ashamed of sticking with what you have

On one of our recently recorded podcasts we discussed our marketing pet peeves. My choice was a new marketing approach called ‘confirm shaming’ in which the user of a website is offered a choice, and if they decline the button option is accompanied by a snarky reply as below:

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This is an amusing attempt to influence user behaviour towards choosing the affirmative option. The image shows a number of coercive techniques: making the confirmation button a vibrant red colour( and very clearly a button compared to the negative response), the use of a cuddly cartoon bear to instill empathy, and informal language.

Stick with the default for cognitive ease

Why do marketers need to resort to this? A huge amount of research into coercion has suggested that users will maintain the default setting for most of their choices due to wanting to maintain cognitive ease: it takes too much effort to evaluate the alternative so we don’t bother.

Organ donation is a selfless act that has incredible benefit to the recipient, and arguably no shortcoming to the donor. Despite this, countries where the default for a population is to be opted out can be as low as 12%, versus almost 100% in countries where the default is opt-in. The argument for default opted-in (or “deemed consent”) is that most people would be keen to donate organs but rarely make the effort to declare it officially. This as akin to the confirm shaming approach as even if an individual was considering opting out, there is more shame attached to potentially denying somebody life than there is saving it.

Perception and loss aversion

There is a perceived risk to changing the default choice: if you make the change and don’t like it you have lost the potential quality gap between the two choices. If you leave it on default you have lost nothing and merely gained whatever it is you have “chosen” no matter how bad. People tend to look for individuals they trust to help them make the decision, and the default option is presumably chosen by whoever is offering the choice so they must have some idea right? If a friend wants you to choose a particular film to watch they will offer the title and then a vague alternative: “Do you want to watch ‘Blind Fury’ or something else?”. Due to the effort to think of an alternative, and the implicit trust in the friend, you are more likely to accept the default choice.

Your perception of what is normal eventually changes with the default

In countries with a policy of default opted-in for organ donation, the perception is that organ donation is not a big deal or sacrifice. In those areas with default opted-out, the feeling is that it is a noble, selfless act to donate organs: similar to giving away half of your life savings!

When you start a new job, paying tax, pension, national insurance etc. is the default. It feels less of a burden this way, and if given the option to opt-in later there would be many more tax evaders of pensionable age living on the streets. It is evident that the perception of tax evasion would be less taboo, and this may explain why self-employed individuals may participate in evasion more regularly and also not see it as unethical as a salaried employee might.

What are your sticking points?

If the default effect is so powerful, is it worth considering what position you may be holding against your best judgement? Most individuals stay in a job or career they are unhappy with simply because the potential conflict and anxiety associated with changing outweighs the perceived benefit. The more complicated the new option the more likely the default will be maintained, so thinking about the change in simple terms may help you act.

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Phil Whitby