Ethically Deployed Defaults
Defaults are extremely effective at influencing people’s choices. Decisions as small as the kind of milk to get in a latte and as large as whether or not to donate one’s organs can differ by 60% to 70% or more, depending on what is set as the default. This has made defaults an increasingly common form of influence—by setting an option as the default, policy makers and marketers have a simple but powerful way to sway choices. But defaults are so effective that people have raised concerns that they could be used unethically or irresponsibly. Some have suggested that informing people how defaults are intended to influence their decisions could protect people from defaults intended to benefit the default-setter at the chooser’s expense, but others have cautioned that disclosure could make well-intended defaults less effective and undermine the potential good that they could do.
New research by Mary Steffel and Elanor F. Williams in the forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that disclosing how defaults are intended to affect behavior affects how fair and ethical people perceive them to be, but it does not change how susceptible people are to their influence. The good news is that defaults can be disclosed without reducing their benefits, but the bad news is that disclosure alone is insufficient to protect people from being unknowingly manipulated. Rather, a more active intervention is needed to enable people to resist potentially exploitative defaults.
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