When we have to make a decision, our natural tendency is to go with the default option. This has important repercussions in communications, especially when we are trying to change people’s behaviour from the default. By avoiding complexity, we’re more likely to be able to do this.
To be or not to be an organ donor
Perhaps one of the simplest and best demonstrations of the effect of default options on behaviour is take-up of organ donation. The graph below (based on data from 2003) shows take-up in different countries in Europe.
As you can see, there is a huge difference here, with the first four countries’ take-up being extremely low and the other countries’ take-up being extremely high. Clearly this difference is too large to be explained away by cultural differences (just look at the difference between Denmark and Sweden) or any other such subtle factors.
In fact, the difference between the two groups is easily explained: in the first four countries, people had to opt in (tick a box) to agree to organ donation. In the other countries, their agreement was presumed and they had to opt out if they didn’t want to donate.
Despite there being a big difference between agreeing and not agreeing to donate one’s organs, most people took the path of least resistance in this decision and stuck with the default.
Choosing ease over benefit
Think for a minute about what the default action actually means. In most cases, the default action is simply not taking any action, or not making any change. So when you are trying to change your audience’s behaviour, you are battling with their tendency to take the path of the least resistance. This can be incredibly difficult, even when changing behaviour is clearly the best thing to do.
Dan Ariely described an example where people taking branded medicines would not proactively make the switch to generic medicines, despite being told they were far cheaper. They were sticking with the default, taking the path of least resistance.
It was only when they were forced to make an active choice between branded and generic (the default in this case, not making a choice, resulted in them getting nothing) that they chose the cheaper generic medicines.
Complexity encourages default action
Of course, we don’t always stick to the path of least resistance. We regularly take decisive action instead of doing nothing. So what makes the difference?
It seems that one of the most important factors is the complexity of the non-default behaviour.
In one study, doctors were given a scenario regarding a patient with osteoarthritis where, having tried all treatments, they had referred the patient for a hip replacement.
The first group was told that at the last minute they remembered one medicine they had forgotten to try. Most of this group reported that they would call the patient back.
The other group was told that at the last minute they remembered two medicines they had forgotten to try.
Amazingly, and rather terrifyingly, most of this group reported that they would not call the patient back, and let them carry on with the hip replacement.
This study suggests that we are more likely to stick to the path of least resistance when deviating from the default is more complex. Conversely, we are more likely to change our actions when the non-default option is simple.
Another study looked at shoppers buying jam in a grocery store in California. When shoppers were presented with a choice of 6 different jams, 30% made a purchase. Astonishingly, when shoppers were presented with a choice of 24 different jams, only 3% made a purchase.
With the larger number of choices increasing the complexity of the decision, shoppers were more likely to stick to their default position of buying nothing.
Applying this to communications
The examples described above all highlight the importance of keeping things straightforward.
When you want to move your audience to action or change their behaviour in some way, it’s important to avoid complex communications involving too much choice.
In short: Keep it simple, stupid.