The Power of the Questions

While I was looking for a topic to talk about in my blog, I stumbled upon an interesting TED Talk by Dr. Dan Ariely who was talking about decision-making. I have always been fascinated about cognitive psychology and I decided to listen to it. I learned something very interesting. He was talking about how we might think we are in control of our decisions but in reality, there are many other factors that are in play.

He brought up the example of organ donations across different countries. This topic is personally relevant to me and I was further interested in it. The following graph demonstrates the distribution of organ donors across 11 countries.

Organ donors in various countries

At first glance, it’s easy to see there are the countries on the left that have very few donors and the countries on the right that have many donors! What caused this major discrepancy? If you were like me, you would guess something like cultural values, religious values, ethnicity or something else that is specific to that nation. However, if you look closely, there are countries that are very similar in culture and also are geographically close but still has a big disparity in the population who are organ donors such as France and United Kingdom. There is also Germany and Poland as well as Denmark and Sweden. All these countries, despite their similarities are placed in the two different groups of organ donors.

According to research, one of the main similarities between the countries that are high in donors and between the countries low in donors is the way the question is phrased on the form where you indicate your choice to be an organ donor.

The countries on the right, where there are many donors, the question on the form is phrased in the following manner:

“Check the box below if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.”

But people tend not to check the box and the usually choose to go with the default option — to be an organ donor.

In the countries on the left, where there are few organ donors, the question is phrased as following:

“Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program.”

Again, people choose to go with the default option and decide not to check the box. But now, they are choosing to not be an organ donor where as in the other countries, by not checking the box, they choose to be organ donors.

This really surprised me. Clearly, this is not something we are consciously aware of. For many parts of the decisions we make, we convince ourselves that we consciously make these decisions but simple factors such as the wording of the sentence and the action of checking a box can have a major influence on our decision making. In this case, Dr. Ariely’s explanation is that these decisions are so difficult and complex for us to make that we just go with whatever that is already chosen for us — the default option!

In light of our class, what I want to highlight is that we must really be careful when devising tests or scales for any experiment. Without being aware, we can influence the participants in a way to completely bias their responses. This is may be one of the many reasons why many experiments have low replicability rates, especially in social psychology where the subjects are humans!

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