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The Power of the Default Option


Guest articles > The Power of the Default Option


by: Itamar Shatz



In many situations, when people are given a set of options to choose from, they will go with the default option, even if other options might be preferable. Accordingly, by changing the default option in situations that you can control, you can nudge people in a certain direction, and increase the likelihood that they will choose your preferred course of action over the alternatives.

Research examples

The following are some examples of studies where changing the default option out of a certain choice set led to a positive outcome:

  • Momsen and Stoerk (2014) found that changing people's energy contract, by making make renewable energy the default option, significantly increased the portion of people who decided to use renewable energy.
  • Johnson and Goldstein (2003) found that when people are organ donors by default, there are much higher rates of organ donors in the population compared to when people have to opt-in in order to become donors.
  • Brown et al. (2013) found that changing the default value on the thermostat in an office building led to energy savings, since people were often unlikely to change it, even if they would normally prefer to set it to a slightly different value.

Why this happens

The main reason why people stick with the default option that they are presented with is inertia, which in this case refers to people's tendency to avoid change, unless there is a compelling reason to do so, in order to conserve resources such as time and effort. Furthermore, in various situations people might choose to stick with the default option for other reasons, such as the desire to take action which is in line with social norms.

Practical applications

You can take advantage of people's tendency to stick with the default option, by setting up a default option that leads to the outcome that you prefer.

When implementing this concept, it's important to keep in mind that even though people are biased toward sticking with the default option offered to them, this doesn't mean that they will always pick it. For example, if the default option is highly negative in some way, people are likely to avoid it, despite the innate advantage that comes with presenting it with the default. Accordingly, you shouldn't expect people to always pick the default option just because it's the default, especially if there is some compelling reason for them to pick an alternative option.

In addition, it's important to remember that making a certain option the default is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting people to select it. Nudging people in this manner should generally involve additional strategies, such as emphasizing the benefits of your preferred option, or making it more difficult for people to select other options.

Finally, it's also important to remember our tendency to stick with the default option when it comes to your own decision-making. Specifically, whenever you find yourself tempted to choose the default option in a certain scenario, you should make sure to assess your thought process carefully, and make sure that you picked that option because it was truly the best one, and not just because it was the default.

In conclusion

  • People often stick with the default option that is presented to them.
  • For example, people might stick with a default payment plan that is offered to them simply because it's the default, even if alternative plans are better.
  • The main reason why people stick with the default option is inertia, which refers to our tendency to avoid making changes unless there is a compelling reason to do so, though other factors, such as a desire for social conformity, also play a role in our thinking.
  • You can take advantage of the power of the default option in situations that you control, by picking the default option that you want others to choose.
  • It's also important to keep this effect in mind when it comes to your own decision making, since doing so could help you avoid selecting a sub-optimal option simply because it's presented to you as the default.


Brown, Z., Johnstone, N., Haščič, I., Vong, L., & Barascud, F. (2013). Testing the effect of defaults on the thermostat settings of OECD employees. Energy Economics, 39, 128-134.

Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do defaults save lives?. Science, 302(5649),1338-1339.

Momsen, K., & Stoerk, T. (2014). From intention to action: Can nudges help consumers to choose renewable energy?. Energy Policy, 74, 376-382.



Itamar Shatz is the author of Effectiviology, a website about scientific and philosophical concepts that have practical applications. He often writes about topics which relate to the art of changing minds, such as the cognitive biases and logical fallacies that affect the way in which people make decisions.

Contributor: Itamar Shatz

Published here on: 05-May-19

Classification: Psychology



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