Are we in control of our own decisions? That’s the question posed by behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, and his research yields some very surprising results. I won’t go into all the details, but instead I’ll jump right to the heart of it and give you some practical examples.
Here’s the scenario paraphrased:
England and France, among other European countries, have drastically different rates of organ donors. The reason is not because of any cultural differences but because of the way the question is asked on the form at the DMV. One country says “Check this box to opt-in” and the other says, “Check this box to opt-out.” In both cases the default option (unchecked) became the majority response. In other words, the form effectively says “If you do nothing then this action will happen next.”
Ariely says it this way, “The moment you set [something] as the default it has a huge power on what people end up doing.”
Think of the previous scenario as if you are the person creating the form. You have the power to set the default action in place. You decide the outcome up front; the only way it changes is if others alter that course of action.
This simple idea has completely revolutionized my approach to productivity. It took a while to sink in before I really understood it, so let me give you a few practical examples that I use every day.
Email Correspondence – Use the phrase “unless I hear otherwise.” This means you don’t have to wait for a response, and it sets something in motion that you can rely on unless someone else takes action to change it. For example: Rather than saying, “Should we meet at 3:00?” say “I’ll meet you at 3:00 unless I hear otherwise.” It’s a simple difference, but it sets something in motion that will only be changed by further action. Whereas the other version requires further action (a response) before a decision is made.
Sorting Photos – Rather than choosing photos to be deleted, select the ones you want to keep. In other words, if I import a bunch of photos from a shoot, none of them will be delivered unless I select them. The default course of action is to delete them. The only way this changes is if I feel compelled to select them. By doing so I deliver a much smaller collection of images which means less time spent editing and better quality overall. If you’re using Lightroom this means you don’t reject the bad photos (X key), you only select the good ones (~ key).
Automated Savings – Check with your bank or finance software to see if you can automate money transfers into your savings account. I’d be willing to bet that you already have automatic payments in place, but you can give yourself the upper hand by arranging automatic savings.
Text not Voicemail – This one is more of a personal peeve than anything, but I’ve changed my voicemail message to say, more or less, “I don’t check my voicemail. Send me a text or email instead.” In this case I use the default action to weed out those who won’t send a text (usually automated calls and telemarketers).
Hopefully the idea is making sense now. It’s a subtle shift in the way you look at things, but the implications can have significant effects. Start looking for default actions in your daily life and eventually you’ll see them everywhere. Then look for ways to bend them in your favor.