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Stairway to hope by Sofia Kolovskaya. CC-BY-NC-SA. Image is cropped

Choosing without choosing

How the defaults around you are shaping what you do and who you are, and how you can rethink them.

Imagine this. You’re at the supermarket till. The checkout assistant is picking your items up off the conveyor belt, scanning them, and placing them to one side. What do you do next?

If you live in the UK, until a few years ago you’d have put your shopping in a number of plastic bags, freely available at the end of the till. And you’d have been in good company, too. In 2014, customers in major supermarkets in England went through more than 7.6 billion single-use carrier bags.

A year later, the government introduced a small charge for them, and the impact was transformative: the number of bags used since then has plummeted by 95%, and nearly £180 million ($235 million) has been raised for good causes from the revenue collected.

Now think back and ask yourself why you — and so many others — used those plastic bags. The answer is quite simple: because they were there. This is an example of a default, a pre-set course of action that takes effect if you don’t specify a different choice. When the government made it even mildly inconvenient to use plastic bags — the charge was only 5p (7 cents) initially and has only increased to 10p (14 cents) since — we modified our behaviour. The pre-set action went from free bags to charging overnight. These days you probably plan ahead and bring something with you to carry your shopping home in.

There are numerous other examples. Since 2012, UK employers have been gradually required to enrol their eligible workers into a workplace pension scheme. By removing the requirement for employees to opt in, more than 90% of workers are building up savings and putting themselves on course for a stable retirement, compared to less than 50% previously. By contrast, in the US, where it’s not yet the default for employers to enrol their people, it’s estimated that half the nation’s workforce do not have access to a workplace retirement savings plan.

Defaults shape the way we are and the things we do without us necessarily realising that’s the case. They are one of the most potent influences on our behaviour.

It’s our human nature that makes defaults so powerful

  • Making choices tires us out, so we’ll often opt for the decision-free route. We’ll also typically assume the default is there for a reason and not question it.
  • We feel loss more greatly than we feel gain. Psychologists call this loss aversion, and it’s why we have difficulty accepting sunk costs and walking away from projects that aren’t working.
  • We are hard-wired to fear change. Our brains perceive any shift from the status quo as a loss (i.e. painful).
  • We are put off by the short-term cost of switching, even if there will be gains in the longer term. Maybe you have to fill in a form, or pay upfront even though you’ll save money over time. It’s called inertia, and it’s why 80% of us aren’t switching banking providers even when the service we receive is poor or our bills are going up.

But there’s a dark side to defaults. Not all of them have our best interests at heart. Some are designed to control, exploit or extract. Perhaps some of these are affecting you right now, too.

  • Have you ever signed up for a free trial and forgotten to cancel it? Next thing you knew, money was being taken out of your bank account. You’ve unwittingly subscribed to a service just because you didn’t opt out.
  • Do you sometimes find yourself watching Netflix for longer than you’d planned, because the next episode started automatically after the last one finished? Pressing stop takes effort, so you don’t bother.
  • And how many people have public social media accounts — and are therefore sharing their content with the whole world — purely because they were never expressly asked if they wanted to make them private?

And it gets even more sinister than that.

The downside of defaults

If a default option is simply what happens when you do nothing, then, to quote the godfather of nudge theory, Richard Thaler, “Sometimes even when you do nothing, something happens.” This can exclude large swathes of the population, and the impact on women and minorities can be devastating.

One example is male bias. In her brilliant book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez talks about a gender “data gap”, where data gathered predominantly from men is used to build products that consequently exclude women. This is evident in everything from voice recognition software that doesn’t recognise female voices, and phones created for male hands, to the ways cities are structured to favour men, leaving women feeling unsafe and even impeding their access to work, a social life, and transportation.

A similar data gap exists for ethnicity. In 2020, Twitter apologised after its image-cropping algorithm was found to be automatically focusing on white faces over black ones. Zoom has also been accused of racial bias, following reports that black people were fading into their virtual backgrounds. The reason? The default assumption for both was that the user was white.

The consequences of this can be severe. Joy Buolamwini, a Ghanaian-American computer scientist and digital activist based at the MIT Media Lab, has found that racial bias built into facial recognition systems trained to identify white males might cause them to misidentify people of colour. With the rise of facial recognition being used in criminal investigations, this could result in someone being unfairly labelled a criminal for life.

Tony Arcieri’s series of UX experiments on twitter automatically favoured the white male face in every single test. Twitter has since altered the algorithm.
Twitter’s response. Interestingly now the algorithm picks the white space and neither face from the above example!
Unfortunate malfunction from zoom, not picking up the person of colour on the left’s skin tone with its virtual background filters

Although data sets can be updated, or gaps filled in, with promising emerging techniques like synthetic data, this is easier said than done, and assumes an understanding of the inherent biases in data sets or of the blind spots that are still present in areas like design, software development, town planning and policy making.

It’s possible to rethink the defaults around us. Here’s how:

  1. AWARENESS that even when you do nothing, something happens, and therefore all defaults are designed, whether by you or someone else.
  2. ASSESSMENT of the options available, and the impact of the default. Opt-in, opt-out, what else? For example, when the UK organ donation register switched from being opt-in to opt-out, the proportion of the population on the register leapt from 17% to 69%. However, there’s sometimes a third option — a forced choice — like a driving licence application that makes you select whether or not to be a donor.
  3. DESIGN, setting the most beneficial option as the default and requiring some action that creates a light barrier forthe less desirable options, e.g. an action to opt-out like filling in a form or paying a fee.
  4. EXPERIMENT to check whether the default you’ve designed truly has the effect you were intending. Perhaps start with a smaller cohort until you know how it’s going to go, and use a control group to compare against.
  5. MEASUREMENT, noticing what changed, whether there were any unintended consequences, and learning from it. For example, when the UK organ donation register became opt-out, some people felt manipulated, several religious communities disapproved, and in some cases, families were also overriding the wishes of the deceased.
  6. SCALE OR SUNSET. If it’s working, roll it out. If it isn’t, try something else.

Or there’s another way: jolt the system.

Major disruptions and times of crises have proved fertile ground for innovation and shifts in the way we think. The 2008 financial crash led to a flurry of groundbreaking challenger banks and innovative products that promised to democratise financial services. The United Nations and the European Union were both born in response to the devastating impact of World War II.

COVID-19 has been another such shock. Despite its horrors, the pandemic has also reflected our ingenuity, innovation and ability to move and work quickly, together. It has forced us to question defaults that, in retrospect, were acting as barriers to progress. For example, we saw unprecedented global collaboration to get vaccines developed and approved in record time, slashing the period from two years to a remarkable eight months.

Innovation became an imperative

At Brink we have seen this shift play out across much of our work. By tearing apart traditional processes, we’re able to do deals and realise fresh ideas within a matter of weeks. And like so many other organisations, we’re now a globally distributed, remote team with online working as our default — a concept that was unthinkable two years ago.

At a local level, we’re seeing innovators question defaults, using local resources to address their unique needs:

  • In Kenya, initiatives have been questioning the default to ship PPE or health tech components over from manufacturing plants in Asia. Instead they have been choosing to produce them locally. Plastics manufacturers have joined forces with the informal sector — the ‘Jua Kali’ community of makers — to produce much needed PPE locally. Meanwhile this startup Kijenzi has been creating a network of local digital manufacturing hubs to produce health tech components directly in Kenya.
  • Across Africa, new grassroots movements seek a more inclusive and accountable way to obtain, use and dispose of personal data during and after the pandemic when the default has been for data collection to be divisive and extractive.
  • Women are at the forefront of the response, like this local innovator in Zambia supporting women giving birth at home safely when they could no longer go to clinics.
  • In India, tech entrepreneurs collaborated with local government to challenge the default that recipients of subsidised public rations must come in person to collect in order to receive, losing out on daily wages by being absent from work to do so.

Why it’s important

This strikes at the heart of Behavioural Innovation, the idea that it’s people who innovate, and if we want successful innovation, we need to be intentional about designing with people in mind.

We now have the opportunity to think intentionally about the defaults around us: recognising they exist and changing them to shape the behaviour we want to see. The seismic shifts caused by the pandemic allow us to do this at a fundamental level.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are talking about building back better. The question is: how will we harness defaults to create a world that works better for everyone?

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Abigail Freeman

Abigail Freeman

Founder of Brink. Organisational psychologist and behaviour designer writing about the future of work, the mindsets and culture we need for innovation to thrive