Set It and Forget It: How Default Settings Rule the World

We've seen how design can keep us away from harm and save our lives. But there is a more subtle way that design influences our daily decisions and behavior – whether we know it or not. It's not sexy or trendy or flashy in any way. I'm talking about defaults.


Defaults are the settings that come out of the box, the selections you make on your computer by hitting enter, the assumptions that people make unless you object, the options easily available to you because you haven't changed them.


They might not seem like much, but defaults (and their designers) hold immense power – they make decisions for us that we're not even aware of making. Consider the fact that most people never change the factory settings on their computer, the default ringtone on their phones, or the default temperature in their fridge. Someone, somewhere, decided what those defaults should be – and it probably wasn't you.


Another example: In the U.S. when you register for your driver's license, you're asked whether or not you'd like to be an organ donor. We operate on an opt-in basis: that is, the default is that you are not an organ donor. If you want to donate your organs, you need to actively check a box on the DMV questionnaire. Only about 40 percent of the population is signed up to be an organ donor.


In other countries such as Spain, Portugal and Austria, the default is that you're an organ donor unless you explicitly choose not to be. And in many of those countries over 99 percent of the population is registered. A recent study found that countries with opt-out or "presumed consent" policies don't just have more people who sign up to be donors, they also have consistently higher numbers of transplants.


Of course, there are plenty of other factors that influence the success of organ donation systems, but the opt-in versus opt-out choice seems to have a real effect on our collective behavior. An effect that could potentially make the difference between someone getting a life-saving transplant or not.


Behavioral economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein pretty much wrote the book on the implications of defaults on human behavior. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness is full of ways in which default options can steer human choices, even if we have no idea it's happening. Besides organ donation, the list of potential "nudges" include everything from changing the order of menu items to encourage people to pick certain dishes to changing the default temperature of office thermostats to save on energy.


But my favorite has to do with getting kids to eat their vegetables.


What if I told you there was one simple change you could make in a school cafeteria to get children to eat more salad? It doesn't cost anything, force anyone to eat anything they don't want, and it takes only a few minutes to fix. And it happened in real life: a middle school in New York moved their salad bar away from its default location against a wall and put it smack in the middle of the room (and prominently in front of the two cash registers, as seen in the diagram below). Salad sales more than tripled.


You see the same effect when you change the placement of fruit in a lunchroom, or healthy snacks at the checkout counter.


Another example is from the realm of personal finance. Most Americans are pretty bad at saving money for the future, especially for that ambiguously defined golden yonder called "retirement." And the current defaults don't make it any easier. Many companies' retirement plans, like 401(k)'s, are opt-in: You have to hike over to HR and get enrolled, and sometimes you have to understand a bit about investing. But an alternative strategy has seen massive success: automatic enrollment. This means that employees are enrolled by default, unless they decide not to contribute. Research shows that under these circumstances, participation in 401(k)'s skyrockets and the retirement savings don't appear to cut savings in other accounts.


As an added bonus, unlike tax subsidies for contributing to your retirement savings, automatic enrollment programs cost the government nothing.


It's true that the same mechanism that gets so many people enrolled in the first place (it's the default), keeps them stuck at the low default contribution rate (often 3 percent). That's not much to be contributing year after year.


To combat the problem, many employers now implement automatic escalation, which means you agree upfront to raise your contribution by 1 or 2 percent every year. One variation of automatic escalation called "Save More Tomorrow" ties the increased contribution to your next pay raise, so you don't "miss" the money so much. In a 2013 paper in Science, economist Thaler estimates that automatic escalation programs have boosted annual savings by $7.4 billion. Little defaults can add up to a lot of cash.


Defaults could also help get out the vote. Automatic voter registration would automatically sign up eligible citizens to vote when they interact with government agencies (say, to get their driver's licenses). Instead of our current cumbersome and error-prone system that says you can't vote unless you register, this modern reform would default to registration unless you opt out. Five states have already approved automatic voter registration measures and 24 more are considering legislation.


While some defaults might only come up once a year or on Election Day, others seep into our most mundane daily activities. Take, for example, the default font of your favorite word processing program. For many, that's Times New Roman. It was not only the default font of Microsoft Word for many years, but since its early days as a newspaper typeface it has managed to infiltrate books, magazines, legal documents, high school essays, and almost every personal computer around the world. Times New Roman has permeated every crevice of textual society – so much so that Matthew Butterick, author of Typography for Lawyers, calls it the "default font of every­thing." He goes on to say:


When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, "I submitted to the font of least resistance." Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color2026 If you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop.


Of course, it didn't help that early web browsers also defaulted to rendering text in Times New Roman. The results left us with the canonical "early 90's web" that is so familiar today:


Times New Roman is not the only notoriously hated default. Much to the chagrin of designers everywhere, Adobe Illustrator's default font is Myriad Pro.


And don't even get chart makers on the subject of Excel default chart styles. More than one extensive blog post has been written about how to convert Excel's defaults to passable looking graphics.


Defaults can also reflect a legacy of attitudes we're not proud of. The default skin color, in things like "flesh-colored" band-aids and crayons, was long a light tan or peachy color 2014 hardly a reflection of the diversity of human skin tones. More recently, the default images for emoji icons depicting humans had light skin tones, and only recently have other tones been available. The default is a cartoonish yellow (which is still controversial), but some smartphones now at least give people the option to pick their own default from a more diverse selection of colors.


Oftentimes, your default situation is determined by outside forces (the company you work for, the country you live in, Adobe's whims). But not always.


In many cases, you can change the defaults yourself. For example, designer David Kadavy suggests rearranging the icons on the home screen of your smartphone – strategically. The trick is to bring forward the apps you want to use the most, not the ones you already use the most. As Kadavy puts it: "If you design your world to make it hard to do things that are bad for you, and easy to do things that are good for you, your behavior will shape to that design."


You can probably imagine all the ways you could redesign the defaults around you to steer your own behavior. Rearrange the pantry to make junk food harder to reach. Put your running shoes by the bed so you see them first thing in the morning. Bury the Facebook app on your phone. Set up automatic deposits from your paycheck to a savings account so you don't have to remember to transfer money every month. Change the default font to anything but Times New Roman.


So what are you waiting for? Go on and change some defaults.


ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.






Anil Kumar

3 months ago

Great. I had read the book Nudge. The article was a good refresher. Another book that is good on the subject is - Switch - How to Change things when Change is hard - by Chip & Dan Heath.

A first: Himachal breeds mahseer fish in hatchery
The population of the golden mahseer, a popular freshwater sport and food fish, is going to prosper in the rivers of Himachal Pradesh, with the state fisheries department succeeding in breeding it in captivity for the first time.
Besides its rehabilitation and conservation, the breeding technology will turn out to be a major feat in commercial aquaculture too, say experts.
More than 7,000 hatchlings have been recovered from the eggs at a newly set-up Rs 6 crore ($900,000) hatchery at Machhial near Jogindernagar town in Mandi district.
"The first hatchling took place this week and it's a major breakthrough in evolving the breeding technology of the golden mahseer that is otherwise believed to be tough to breed in controlled conditions," fisheries director Gurcharan Singh told IANS.
The breeding took place on July 21 and the hatchlings occurred in the next four to five days.
Singh said in 2012 the department started collecting fries of the golden mahseer from nature. They were later raised to the brooder stage at the farm itself.
"We are expecting to raise more than 20,000 hatchlings this year," a beaming Singh added.
The artificial fertilisation of mahseer eggs in the private sector was carried out for the first time in 1970 at the Tata Power Company's farm at Lonavla in Pune in Maharashtra.
Fish biologist S.N. Ogale, a former Tata biologist, has been assisting the state in developing protocols for the mahseer's artificial propagation and hatchery management.
Being a game fish, the mahseer is also an angler's delight.
Studies conducted by the fisheries department say the population of the golden mahseer is declining in the state for various reasons, including construction of dams, barrages, pollution, indiscriminate fishing of brood and juvenile fish, introduction of exotic species and habitat deterioration.
It has been declared endangered by the Washington-based International Union of Conservation of Natural Resources.
The mahseer, the longest-living freshwater fish, is native to mountain and sub-mountain regions. It belongs to the Tor genus.
The Pong Dam reservoir, around 250 km from state capital Shimla and 190 km from Chandigarh, supports an ample population of the golden mahseer.
It migrates upstream for spawning during the southwest floods. After spawning, it returns to the original feeding grounds. It thrives at altitudes of up to 2,000 metres above sea level and is purely carnivorous.
Fisheries Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri told IANS that after the captive breeding the next step would be ranching -- the release and recapture of fish -- a milestone in aquaculture.
He said more than 6,000 families in the state are directly depending upon capture fishery.
He said the depleting fish stocks in the rivers would be increased by releasing hatchery-reared juveniles into nature.
Officials said in nature, fish stocks are multiplied to a great extent by releasing hatchery-reared juveniles. They can be harvested when they grow to table size.
Principal Secretary Sangay Gupta said another mahseer hatchery would be set up at Naggar village in the Sunni area of Shimla district this year.
"This hatchery would help stocking mahseer in the newly constructed Kol Dam reservoir," he added.
Himachal Pradesh is aptly termed the storehouse of aquatic biodiversity. The state's water bodies are home to 85 fish species, including rohu, catla and mrigal and trout, both brown and rainbow.
The fisheries department says the overall fish production in the state has increased by 9.2 percent in the last fiscal.
A total of 11,798 tonnes of fish valued at Rs.109.80 crore was harvested from the state's rivers and reservoirs in 2015-16, 1,062 tonnes higher than the previous year.
Of this, trout constituted 417.23 tonnes -- 61.03 tonnes higher than the previous year.
The state aims to set up 106 trout units this fiscal, besides setting up hatcheries for trout and carps and storing seeds in reservoirs for big fish.
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.


India short of 500,000 police; why it matters -- and does not
India was short of more than half a million police officers on January 1, 2015, the last date for which nationwide data is available, the Lok Sabha was told on July 26, 2016. But our analysis of global police staffing patterns and murder rates in six countries suggests more police do not necessarily mean less crime.
Up to 90 per cent of Indian police officers currently work for more than eight hours a day, according to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Police Research and Development. It said 68 per cent of police report working 11 hours a day, and 28 percent report 14-hour work days. Nearly half report that they are called to duty between eight and 10 times a month during offs.
There were 17.2 million police officers across 36 states and union territories, when there should have been 22.6 million, according to the ministry of home affairs. There should be an officer for every 547 Indians, according to a government-mandated ratio -- called "sanctioned strength" in official jargon -- but the number is one for every 720.
This is among the lowest police-population ratios in the world. In the US, there is an officer for 436 people, Spain one for 198, in South Africa, 347.
In a ranking of 50 countries, India was second from the bottom, better only than Uganda, according to a 2010 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That year, there was a police officer for every 775 Indians, so the figure presented to the Lok Sabha represents an improvement.
There should be an officer for every 454 people, according to UN standards quoted in the South Asian Terrorism Portal. Using those standards, Bihar needs more than three times as many police officers; even using Indian standards, the state needs 2.7 times the number of police that it has.
While it appears logical that a favourable police-population ratio is correlated with a lower crime rate globally, studies on the relationships are inconclusive, even contradictory, according to a 2010 American study. Our analysis of police-population ratios and homicide rates appears to agree.
In India, insurgencies and other extreme examples of lawlessness in some states push up crime rates, despite seemingly adequate police staffing. For instance, in Chhattisgarh -- wracked by a Maoist insurgency -- has a police officer for 574 people, not far from the Indian standard.
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.



Suketu Shah

3 months ago

This is exactly why nonsense IPL shd not be held in India which is what Namo govt are intending to get it out of India from next yr.

We are listening!

Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.

To continue

Sign Up or Sign In


To continue

Sign Up or Sign In



The Scam
24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
Moneylife Magazine
Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
Stockletters in 3 Flavours
Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
(Includes Moneylife Magazine and Lion Stockletter)