The Default Effect

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
The default effect suggests that when presented with choices, we have a tendency to stick with the default option. This is very much similar (and likely related) to the status quo bias, which demonstrates a preference for maintaining an existing state of affairs. However, unlike the status quo bias, this often involves user interface (if digital) and/or user experience considerations regarding choices. For example, the default effect would influence how we fill out a form, our choices regarding checkbox-options when creating online accounts, our choices when selecting options for customized products, etc. This can be seen in respect to organ donations (See “Organ Donations” in our Research Examples section on this page) where requiring people to opt-out of organ donation status on a form can dramatically increase the number of organ donors in a country when compared to asking people to opt-in. Jachimowicz et al. (2019) performed a meta-analysis of default effect studies, finding that defaults have a noticeable effect (e.g. are chosen more often) in many studies, but that there are variations depending on the domain and experimental design. They suggest that the default effect is strongest in consumer domains, and that it is more powerful when the default reflects endorsement (e.g. if people assume the person who set the default has their best interests in mind) or endowment (e.g. if people see the default as the status quo). However Jachimowicz et al. (2019) warn that future research ought to consider preferences, as an individual’s preference strength might make them less susceptible to the default effect. Further, as the default effect is similar to the status quo bias, it may also be partially driven by loss aversion, anchoring, the endowment effect (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988), and cognitive efficiency through a reduction in the use of cognitive resources (Johnson et al., 2002).

Huh et al. (2014) additionally suggest that sometimes defaults can be social in nature. Through experimentation, they find that when observing others, we often mimic their choices, especially in low-stakes situations (e.g. deciding what drink to choose at a restaurant). This may occur most often when there is uncertainty in respect to the choice (e.g. which drink is best). However, this only seems to occur when the decision is made privately. When made publicly (e.g. in front of the original choice maker) people in their experiments (which involved tea or crackers) were less likely to mimic choices. Huh et al. (2014) suggest this may be due to impression management, whereby we don’t want to be seen as followers or as weird for copying the other person. Similarly, Everett et al. (2014) found that in respect to altruistic behaviour (e.g. donating to charity), individuals are often influenced by perceptions of social norms when choosing a default option, and that the default option itself can be perceived as representative of a social norm. Further, descriptive social norms, such as information about what others choose, were found to be especially impactful. Although injunctive social norms, such as beliefs about what others would approve of, were also important.

When to Consider The Default Effect

If you are asking a customer to fill out a form, sign up for an online account, or take any action that involves choice, you can use the default effect to influence their choices. In low-stakes situations, people will often choose the default choice simply because they think you want them to choose that option, or because they can’t be bothered to think about changing it. In higher-stakes situations, people might consider whether you have their interests at heart (e.g. did you set the best option to default), if the option is a status quo, if changing the option might lead to loss (e.g. due to loss aversion and anchoring), what choice someone else has made, or if there is a socially acceptable choice. If you can predict which factors may influence your customers, you can frame your options in a way that promotes your preferred default choice. Further, it may be beneficial to make default choices more visibly salient in order to emphasize them in digital media like websites and online forms (although we have not found any research on this).

Practical Examples of The Default Effect

The Default Effect and Email List Development

Whenever you require a user to interact directly with your website through a form (account creation, payment for products, contact forms, etc), you can include a checkbox prompting the user to sign up to a newsletter emailing list. If you set the checkbox to start checked off (requiring the user to click it to opt out of the email) you are much more likely to get people to sign up. To improve the chances that individuals sign up, you can use radio buttons instead of a checkbox, and make the default option more salient through larger font, colours that stand out, etc. Do note however that these practices may violate regulations in some countries (like Canada). Further, it can lead to large generalized email lists where those who sign up have little interest in your product/service, and may view your brand negatively if you spam their email too often. On the other hand, even if individuals have little interest in receiving emails, each email acts as reminder of your brand, which in turn may take advantage of the mere exposure effect and the familiarity heuristic to increase positive feelings about your brand, improve the effectiveness of advertisements (especially retargeting ads), and drive future sales.

Influencing Tip Choice with The Default Effect

One way that restaurants often take advantage of the default effect is by setting three choices for a tip on payment systems, with the middle tip set as the default. This sets out a descriptive social norm informing people that the middle tip is appropriate, even if that tip is different from injunctive social norms (what people believe is appropriate). Further, the first and last tip act as anchors (reference points) and can lead you to leave higher tips than normal even if you choose a custom tip instead of the middle tip (as the lowest displayed tip influences your estimates of an appropriate tip).

Optimizing Profits with Restaurant Menu Combos

If you run a restaurant or food truck, you can create “combos” on your menu to define default food options that help you optimize your profit. This is especially powerful in the fast food industry, where customers appreciate convenience. Combos can help communicate norms, especially if selling food that may not be culturally normative for your target market. They can also help you sell items that most customers might not normally consider separately (e.g. dessert or drinks). Similarly, if you are a restaurant using food delivery services, you can offer popular meals (e.g. a burger) and require customers to remove the default items (e.g. remove bacon to save 30 cents) instead of asking them to add the items. This can take advantage of loss aversion to drive customers to choose the fully-loaded options (which you should set to be the more profitable options), as customers might feel like removing items to save money diminishes the experience. Keep in mind however that there are psychological benefits to allowing customers to create their own customized item (e.g. the Ikea effect), so it may be wise to also offer a completely customizable menu option near the bottom.

Making eCommerce Subscriptions a Default

Some ecommerce websites have subscription plans for certain items that users tend to purchase repeatedly. One way they get people to sign up to these recurring subscriptions is to make them the default choice, and require the user select “one-time purchase” by clicking a smaller more obscure check box. Further, they often offer a small discount for subscribing. Any time you think that it’s more profitable to convince a user to subscribe than to make a one time purchase, you should a/b test setting the subscription as the default. This has the added benefit of taking advantage of the status quo bias and loss aversion, whereby customers who subscribe are less likely to unsubscribe. And further, if you lock them in to a special rate that is no longer available to new subscribers, you can also take advantage of the endowment effect.

Using the Default Effect to Encourage Automatic Renewals

When selling a subscription-based service, it might help to offer automatic renewals, and set it as a default option. Most customers expect that they will want to continue using the service in the future, so they will just accept it as a convenience. And due to the status quo bias it is unlikely that they will manually unsubscribe even if they stop using the service for a time. This can help you retain customers in the long term.

Research Examples of The Default Effect

Organ Donations

One of the most famous examples used in behavioural science presentations is a chart from Johnson & Goldstein (2003) that shows the differences in organ donation rates between countries that use an opt-in system (explicit-consent) compared to an opt-out system (presumed-consent). Countries using an opt-in system in the chart range from a consent rate of 4.25% in Denmark to 27.5% in the Netherlands. On the other hand, countries using an opt-out system range from 85.9% in Sweden to 99.98% in Austria. In many countries, this choice appears on a driver’s license renewal form (or similar mandatory government form), and thus arguably the difference between an organ donation rate of under 30% compared to over 80% is simply whether you are asked “would you like to donate your organs” or “would you like to opt out of organ donation.” To test if this is the case, Johnson and Goldstein (2003) asked people to imagine they had moved to a new state. One third of participants were simply asked if they would sign up for organ donations. Another third was told that organ donations were the default, and the final third were told that not being an organ donor was the default. Only 42% of those in the opt-in condition would have consented to organ donation, whereas 79% in the neutral condition and 82% in the opt-out condition would have. Thus, the default effect seems to play a significant role in willingness to donate organs. Sadly, this isn’t directly translatable to the real world. Rithalia et al. (2009) suggest that increases in organ donation rates result from a combination of presumed consent (opt-out requirements), legislation, attitudes toward donation, awareness, infrastructure, and investment in healthcare. Similarly, Davidai et al. (2012) suggest that switching from opting in to opting out may influence the meaning associated with organ donation. For example, those who were told a country used an opt-in system rated organ donation as similar to giving away half of all your wealth upon death, whereas those who were told a country used an opt-out system rated organ donation as similar to letting others ahead of you in line or volunteering to help the needy. This suggests that an opt-in or opt-out system might influence beliefs about social norms, aligning with previously discussed research by Huh et al. (2014) and Everett et al. (2014). Regardless, the important takeaway here is that when creating strategies that leverage the default effect, it’s always important to consider other variables that may be influencing behaviour and decision making, and how setting a default may change perceptions.

Customizing Racing Bikes

Herrmann et al. (2011) ran an experiment where they had participants customize a racing bike online. Each component of the bike (e.g. the pedals or the gearshift) had a zero cost option followed by a number of better options rising in value. For example, pedals ranged from the Shimano Ultega at 0 Euros to the Look Keo HMTI at 191 euros, with five choices in between. Twelve features had the default set at zero, while four features had the default manipulated to be either the lowest price level, the middle price, or the highest price. The higher the default value was set, the more money individuals were willing to spend when customizing the bike. Herrmann et al. (2011) then ran an experiment to see what the most profitable default price level was, and found that it was between the middle and highest value. They suggest that this demonstrates the default price acts as an anchor increasing sales of options near their price point. Thus, if your business involves customization or choice, it may be beneficial to experiment with the default options, rather than starting the user at the minimum amount as many websites currently do.

Works Cited

Davidai, S., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2012). The meaning of default options for potential organ donors. PNAS, 109(38), 15201-15205.

Everett, J. A. C., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., Savulescu, J., & Faber, N. S. (2014). Doing good by doing nothing? The role of social norms in explaining default effects in altruistic contexts. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(2), 230-241.

Herrmann, A., Goldstein, D. G., Stadler, R., Landwehr, J. R., Heitmann, M., Hofstetter, R., & Huber, F. (2011). The effect of default options on choice – Evidence from online product configurators. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 18(6), 483-491.

Huh, Y. E., Vosgerau, J., & Morewedge, C. K. (2014). Social defaults: Observed choices become choice defaults. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(3), 746-760.

Jachimowicz, J. M., Duncan, S., Weber, E. U., & Johnson, E. J. (2019). When and why defaults influence decisions: A meta-analysis of default effects. Behavioural Public Policy, 3(2), 159-186.

Johnson, E. J., Bellman, S., & Lohse, G. L. (2002). Defaults, framing and privacy: Why opting in-opting out. Marketing Letters, 13(1), 5–15.

Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do defaults save lives? Science, 302(5469), 1338-1339.

Rithalia, A., McDaid, C., Suekarran, S., Myers, L., & Sowden, A. (2009). Impact of presumed consent for organ donation on donation rates: A systematic review. BMJ, 338. A3162.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1(1), 7-59.

Important Links

Discover More Knowledge Contact Us