With thousands of decisions to make every day, wouldn’t it just be way easier if some of them were made for us? In this episode, Mel and Dan unpack how the default bias influences everything from binge-watching to voter turnout, and explain how marketers can become the Kleenex of their category.
Dan: 00:19 Hey, welcome to Bad Decisions. The podcasts that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.
Mel: 00:23 Why we think what we think.
Dan: 00:24 And how to explore this stuff for fun and commercial gain.
Mel: 00:27 I'm Dr Mel Weinberg, I am a performance psychologist.
Dan: 00:30 I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for today.
Mel: 00:34 Here we go.
Dan: 00:42 Hey Mel.
Mel: 00:43 Yeah.
Dan: 00:44 I want to take you all the way back to one of the earliest moments where I honestly felt myself falling truly and deeply in love with behavioural economics.
Mel: 00:44 This sounds really romantic.
Dan: 00:54 This is kind of romantic. I was sitting at home by myself watching a video of a guy who I may or may not have a gigantic man crush on, Dan Ariely.
Mel: 00:54 Okay.
Dan: 01:02 Hi Dan. I know you're a listener, and he was talking about the outrageous situation that exists in America that I've since learned also exists in Australia around organ donation rates, and it's this crazy situation where despite us being the lucky country and a very well developed, very progressive first world nation, lots of great things going for us - the proportion of us who actually end up with our tissue and organ donated once we die is less than 10 percent.
Now, this doesn't just sound bad. This really is bad, especially when you look at it by global standards. Other countries in the world like Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, these guys have organ donation rates of 98 percent or higher. Some of them even have organ donation rates of 100 percent. And here we are, we're all the way on the other side of the world. Maybe we just get a little selfish or something on our island over here, but less than one in 10 of us actually end up donating our organs and tissues when we die, which is just diabolical.
Mel: 02:02 So basically Australia is a really lucky country as long as you're not dead.
Dan: 02:06 Yeah. Or on the organ waiting list.
Mel: 02:09 Right.
Dan: 02:09 Other than that, great place to live. Send your friends and family out here.
Mel: 02:13 The interesting thing about this, particularly from my perspective, is that when you actually ask Australians whether they would like to donate their organs, three in four people say, “yes, of course I'd love to.” There's this huge discrepancy between the 10 percent of us, or less than 10 percent of us who actually donate our organs and yet 75 percent of us really would like to. We really want to do the right thing.
Dan: 02:35 Yeah. Which just goes to show we are not only selfish, but we also lie. Are we lying? Is that what's happening? Most of us also lying?
Mel: 02:43 Pretty much.
Dan: 02:44 I think it's called, is it virtue signalling?
Mel: 02:46 Maybe.
Dan: 02:46 Anyway, that's another episode.
Mel: 02:48 Let's look it up.
Dan: 02:48 Okay, cool.
Mel: 02:48 So the thing that's happening here and the reason that we are in this situation where you've got a whole bunch of people who say that “this is something that I'd really like to do, a morally great thing to do, count me in” and yet barely any of us do it is because the default in Australia is not to donate our organs.
Dan: 03:08 Exactly. Because what happens in these other countries that I've just mentioned before is that as soon as you get your driver's licence, you're an organ donor, unless you specifically want to go to the trouble of opting out and as we all know in Australia or for our Australian listeners, hear you are not an organ donor, unless you specifically go to the effort of going to the website and registering your details and opting yourself in.
Mel: 03:29 So the reason we're talking about this is that it demonstrates the power of what we know as the default bias.
Dan: 03:35 Oh, did you say default bias?
Mel: 03:37 I said default bias.
Dan: 03:37 Is that our heuristic for the episode?
Mel: 03:39 It is. We need some default music. It should just be something really plain and boring and just whatever. Whatever you've got really the closest easiest thing that you've got, just as the default.
Dan: 03:48 I would like actually, Kops can you just get your iPod and put it on shuffle and just whatever the first thing that plays is, that's what we're going with.
Speaker 3: 03:54 (Shania Twain singing) Oh, oh you think you're special, oh, oh you think you're think you're something else. Okay, so you're a rocket scientist, that don't impress me much, so ya...
Dan: 03:54 Okay. Kops is a big Shania Twain fan.
Mel: 04:15 So the default bias refers to the idea that basically whatever we put as the default, even if it's something completely random, the default option has a disproportionately higher chance of being selected.
Dan: 04:29 This sounds terrible. This sounds like these are going to cause us to make all sorts of terrible decisions in life.
Mel: 04:34 This is the thing. It could be hugely problematic if people use it for the wrong reasons.
Dan: 04:38 I mean, not even could be like let's be honest here, six out of 10 people who would be very happy to donate organs and tissue actually take the organs and tissue with them in a box in the ground when they're dead, when they have no need for such organs and tissues anymore just because of this one dirty little heuristic.
Mel: 04:56 Like in this case, it works out not in our favour from an Australian perspective, but we also live in a country where the default option is to vote. On the flip side, yes, maybe not as many of us donate our organs as in many other countries, but to maybe compensate for that, we have large voter turnout rates.
Dan: 05:16 That's great.
Mel: 05:17 Right. So we had something like 94 percent of Australians of eligible Australians. Not sure what the other six percent were doing, 94 percent of eligible Australians voted in our last federal election. Whereas for example, in the US it was something less than 60 percent, and look how that turned out.
Dan: 05:33 Well look how ours turned out, and I don't really think that I'll go on and tell people on the organ waiting list that, you know what, at least you know, that you're in a country that votes the next election is really any consolation.
Mel: 05:43 The thing is that, like from a broader of societal perspective, these have actually big implications. Like voter turnout is a sign of civic participation, which is associated with social capital, and we can go on and talk about all the benefits these has for actually building strong communities, but something as simple as putting voting or making voting as the default that you basically have to vote unless you have a very, very good reason or want to get fined has huge implications for the way we actually function the society.
Dan: 06:10 Also excellent for sausage sizzle sales.
Mel: 06:12 Okay.
Dan: 06:13 Are there particular places in our life where we are especially vulnerable to default biases?
Mel: 06:19 Well, like with any of the heuristics that we talk about here, situations when we're low on information...
Dan: 06:25 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mel: 06:25 Or where we don't really care.
Dan: 06:27 Yeah. I guess there's this idea, especially if you're in the marketing world, that we think that people really want to optimise every purchase they make. If we happen to be a marketer working for a washing detergent company, we would like to think that when people go and buy a washing detergent, they are really trying to get the best value for their money, buy a brand that they feel great about. It's going to deliver them everything that they want.
Mel: 06:50 And you want like the brightest colours, the whitest whites.
Dan: 06:53 The loveliest smell.
Mel: 06:54 Of course.
Dan: 06:55 But the reality is, for all but a very small handful of purchases that any one of us make in a year or even a lifetime, we're not optimised as we are, what we call satisfices. We might all optimise for one or two categories in our lives. For some people it's when they buy a car, they really want to go through all the details of getting the best thing they can get or for other people it's sneakers or whiskey or handbags or whatever it is. But the vast majority of things in life, the vast majority of things we purchase, we're just trying to satisfy us. We're just trying to buy the thing that gives us the least likelihood of dying either actually or socially.
Mel: 07:30 Here's the part of the show where I give you a big word...
Dan: 07:30 Come on.
Mel: 07:33 To describe the little words, that you use even though optimised and satisfice are pretty good.
Dan: 07:37 Good.
Mel: 07:38 Like well done.
Dan: 07:38 Thanks. Not feeling patronised towards at all. Do you want to sound it out for me. What's the word?
Mel: 07:44 Say it with me, it's called the acceptability threshold.
Dan: 07:48 I got this, the acceptability threshold.
Mel: 07:48 Easy.
Dan: 07:48 See. Nailed it.
Mel: 07:52 The acceptability threshold is basically the minimum standard that we're willing to accept.
Dan: 07:56 Like what you look for in a podcast co-host?
Mel: 07:58 Something like that.
Dan: 08:00 Proud to have met your accessibility threshold ...
Mel: 08:03 Acceptability.
Dan: 08:03 Damn it. Acceptability threshold.
Mel: 08:06 There we go, we'll get there.
Dan: 08:07 Yep. I guess what we're seeing here, is that for all but a couple of categories where we're really looking to optimise what we're doing, we're happy to just take whatever will just get us through, whatever passes our acceptability threshold and that's really because, to be honest, we're kind of lazy, we're kind of busy and we're just looking for some sweet, sweet relief from the thousands upon thousands of decisions we'd have to make every day from scratch if default options didn't exist.
Mel: 08:33 The default option serves a hugely important function. It can guide us towards sort of maybe the right direction...
Dan: 08:40 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mel: 08:40 Or the best direction for us, or it can totally detract us and take us towards something that will just be like, you know what, close enough is good enough. I'll just take that. The thing that I love about the default option, and I want to bring this in, is that when I was thinking about it, the default option is like a super heuristic.
Dan: 08:58 Super heuristic!
Mel: 08:59 It's like the superhero of heuristics because it actually incorporates a few of the heuristics we've talked about into sort of understanding why it works and the power that it has. The default option works for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is that there's an element of social proof in it. So we've talked about social proof and how we'll basically just do what everybody else does. When we see a default option, we pretty much believe that that's what everybody else is doing and if it's good enough for everybody else, it's good enough for me.
Dan: 09:26 Okay. So like when you're on a website trying to buy some sort of online software as an example, and you say the popular package that people buy: so there is the cheap, there's the medium, there's the premium. The popular one is always the medium one. So I guess that is a default option, and it's also social proof.
Mel: 09:42 Correct. Another thing that comes into play is the idea of decision fatigue. We talked about this when we talked about choice paradox and the idea that, even though we'd like to think that we have so many choices we're really not very good at making decisions when we have a whole lot of choice. The default gives us an easy here you go, just take this, let me take the worry away from you and all the complexity of making a choice away from you and just take the default.
Dan: 10:06 Yeah. So anybody who's been to McDonald's or has worked at McDonald's would know that if you go up to the counter and just order a big Mac meal, if the person on the other side of the counter knows what they're doing, they will say to you “oh, is that a large meal?” Because they know that one option is to stand here and evaluate, “well, I don't know. Is it a large meal? How hungry am I? How thirsty am I? When is the next time I'm going to be able to eat or drink something? When did I last eat or drink something?” Or the other option is just to go, Yes! And just get on with it and pay them the money and go away for your food to come out.
Mel: 10:34 Way easier.
Dan: 10:34 Way easier.
Mel: 10:35 And this is the thing. This sort of speaks into the next one that comes into play, which is that there's a confirmation bias involved as well, which is if the default option is presented to us, I mean we have to have a pretty strong reason to not go with that option.
Dan: 10:46 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mel: 10:47 We've got to be pretty sure that that's not going to be the right thing for us when it's way easier. Like you said, just go. Yep, Yep, that sounds good and to think of all the reasons why, yep that'll be good enough for me.
Dan: 10:55 I mean the person who suggested it is wearing a visor and a name tag, so clearly they're the expert.
Mel: 11:00 They look pretty reputable.
Dan: 11:01 They know that large is the right way to go.
Mel: 11:03 They know fries.
Dan: 11:04 And who am I, just as a layman to argue with that. Yeah. I'll have a dessert too. Thank you.
Mel: 11:09 Default bias is a super heuristic, and I'm going to coin that term because I don't even know if it exists, but you heard it here first, super heuristic.
Dan: 11:16 I feel like it's the Voltron of heuristics.
Mel: 11:18 It can be.
Dan: 11:19 Like all the other heuristics come together and unite to make default bias.
Mel: 11:22 Yeah. This is captain heuristic right here at West Cape.
Dan: 11:25 I like it.
Mel: 11:26 That's how we know it's super. But it really is one of those things where it's so hard to avoid and so powerful because it pretty much brings together a few of the other heuristics that we've talked about.
Dan: 11:36 Yeah and I guess the thing about the default bias is once you realise it's happening, you start noticing it everywhere.
Mel: 11:44 Let's talk about some of the examples of where we find it.
Dan: 11:46 Lets. Oh, you want me to talk about some examples?
Mel: 11:46 If you wouldn't mind.
Dan: 11:49 Okay, sure thing. I guess one of the places that you often see this is when somebody who knows what they're doing is emailing you, trying to set up an appointment, they'll always suggest a time. Rather than saying, “hey, it would be great to catch up some time, let me know when you're free.” It's like, Oh God, that's putting a lot of work on the other person. The default bias would encourage that person to “say, hey, we should really catch up some time. How are you Wednesday at 2:00 PM or Friday at midday?” What they've done is they've given two great default options I could take, which makes it a path of much less resistance to just say yes and end up going to a meeting I probably don't want to go to.
Mel: 12:21 That applies also, it applies one thing in terms of setting up meetings, but it applies more generally as well. Let me give you some research if I may.
‘Doc’: 12:32 [Back to the Future soundbite] “If this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re going to see some serious shit”
Mel: 12:38 We're going to talk about a study that was looking at the opt in versus opt out scenarios with regard to flu vaccination. Basically, we've got a workplace here, and they set up two conditions. It was a condition where a group of employees were sent an email that said, listen, we're going to offer you all the chance to have the flu vaccine. Please call this number to make an appointment and book in your time.
Dan: 12:59 That's sweet of them.
Mel: 13:00 Yeah. The other email that was sent to another group of employees basically said, specified a date and a time. So yours might've said, “hey Dan, we`re really pleased to offer you the chance to have a flu vaccine at your workplace. Your appointment is next Tuesday at 4:00 PM. Please call this number if you'd like to change or cancel."
Dan: 13:15 Got it.
Mel: 13:15 Some people have a time and date specified, other people have to opt in essentially, and basically what happened was the people who had their time and date specified were much more likely to attend their appointment and get the flu vaccine because all they had to do was just go along with the default that was set for them.
Dan: 13:31 Makes sense. I guess it's interesting in a lot of service based businesses that the default bias is kind of wrapped up in good customer service, and at some point you're just being preemptive and doing the right thing for the customer and sometimes that also aligns with the thing that you would most like them to do.
Mel: 13:47 It's like if you go into a retail store, and you grab something off the shelf and you haven't even maybe picked the right size and all of a sudden the salesperson comes up to you and he's like, hey, can I put that in the change room for you? And all of a sudden the things already in the change room and once it's in the change room you've basically bought it.
Dan: 14:01 You have to go and try it on at least.
Mel: 14:03 So you're basically being defaulted not into purchasing the product but into the behaviour immediately before it, that strongly predicts your purchasing behaviour.
Dan: 14:10 Trying stuff on is a good leading indicator for actually purchasing stuff.
Mel: 14:14 Yep.
Dan: 14:15 For me, I was going to say I try and steer away from religion in this show, but I really don't. I think this is like one of the most striking examples of default bias that of all of the religions in the world and who knows, there must be hundreds or thousands of religions in the world. The vast majority of people stay with the one they were born with it.
Mel: 14:31 Just lazy.
Dan: 14:32 So lucky for them, they were born into the exact right religion and they can just go down that path as opposed to going through the arduous, very tiring task of evaluating all of the world's religions and then deciding which if any, are actually the right choice for you and subscribing to that.
Mel: 14:50 Well `cause once you've been defaulted into it, you then spend the rest of your life in a confirmation bias.
Dan: 14:54 Exactly.
Mel: 14:54 Going about activities that reinforce the fact that your default option was the right one for you.
Dan: 15:00 Exactly. But hey religion is great, if you enjoy it good for you.
Mel: 15:03 And look anybody who watches Netflix is vulnerable to the default biases as well.
Dan: 15:07 I don't know what you're talking about. I absolutely sat down with the intention of watching four episodes back to back. It has nothing to do with that little next episode automatically starting in five, four, three, two. Okay, You got me.
Mel: 15:19 I’m in.
Dan: 15:21 I think they’ve actually reduced the time before which the next episode starts as well.
Mel: 15:25 To make it even harder for you...
Dan: 15:27 To stop. It's like, wait, where's the remote? It's started.
Mel: 15:30 It's already started, opening credits are rolling. May as well just watch the whole thing.
Dan: 15:34 Exactly.
Mel: 15:35 Alright. So tell me how brands can use this information
Dan: 15:38 Ethically. I mean for brands the most obvious, there's sort of the tier one way of using this is to say, look, anytime we put out options for people they're going to choose something, right? And if we make one of those options, the default, it will be selected a disproportionate amount of the time. It would be crazy not to set a default option that matches up with the thing that we would most like to sell. Whether that is the type of package or the way you structure a contract with the client about whether they pay at the start or the end of a phase or you know, just how long the service agreement goes for. You could set a default option of 12 months, or you could set a default option of 24 months and see if people argue with that, chances are they probably won't.
Mel: 16:18 Okay. That's tier one. What's tier two?
Dan: 16:20 I guess the next thing is a bit bigger and a bit meatier and it's that question of what things do we as a brand want to be the default option for? What do we want to be famous for?
Mel: 16:29 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dan: 16:30 And I think one of the most interesting recent examples of this is Beats Headphones. What these guys have done is all of their communications and all of their messaging of late is about the pregame ritual, right? They don't really show athletes playing the sport that they're famous for, but they show athletes in the team bus, in the locker room, coming through the tunnel, always with their Beats headphones on. And they sort of positioned themselves as the default choice for pregame preparation.
Mel: 16:57 Okay.
Dan: 16:57 Which is, you know, it's kinda like uncharted territory. Nobody had really owned that moment before. Everybody knew the moment happened, but nobody had really seized it. When you're seizing a new moment, you get a wonderful opportunity to present yourself as the default option, the Kleenex, the Blu Tack, the whatever it is for that particular category.
Mel: 17:15 Awesome. Is there a tier three?
Dan: 17:17 There's no tier three.
Mel: 17:17 Okay.
Dan: 17:17 Well, maybe you're the tier three. Can you elevate it?
Mel: 17:20 Well, let me flip it a little bit and instead of talking about brands, let's talk about the people on the other side. All right? If you are a smart consumer, you have to be aware that there is likely going to be a default option set for you. Right? And the question you have to ask yourself is, hang on, do I want to be defaulted? Do I care enough to not be defaulted? Right? Because the default option may be a completely random option that has no thought behind it at all. Or you may be dealing with a smart brand, who is trying to push you into … maybe pushed sounds a little rough.
Dan: 17:51 Encourage you into?
Mel: 17:51 Maybe they're trying to nudge. They're trying to nudge you into making a decision that actually benefits them. And may not be the best thing for you. So smart consumer will consider, do I really care? Am I happy to go with the default option or do I really know what I want and am I going to tell them what I want and not let them tell me.
Dan: 18:10 Maybe are you suggesting that we don't just have optimising and satisficing? Maybe we need like a satisficing plus, like just give a little bit of a crap about this.
Mel: 18:18 Now we're going to have a whole choice paradox about whether you want to optimise, satisfice, satisfice plus.
Dan: 18:23 I guess what you're saying is, as consumers we need to be aware of when these default options are being pushed in front of us and even if you are just going to lie back and take it, at least be conscious that that's what's going on.
Mel: 18:33 Own it.
Dan: 18:33 Own it.
Mel: 18:34 All right, let's wrap it up.
Dan: 18:35 Cool. What we're talking about today is the default bias, which is the tendency to take the option that has been recommended for us as the default choice. And as it turns out, that option gets selected a disproportionately high amount of the time
Mel: 18:48 And it happens because we have so many decisions to make in our lives that sometimes then if it's something particularly we don't care about that much, it's easier to just go with the option that's presented to us and that's fine, but let's be aware of it. And let's own that space.
Dan: 19:00 That's right. And as marketers we need to think about a couple of things. One is when we're asking consumers to make choices, what is the choice that we most want them to select and how do we present that as the default option and as a business or as a brand, is there something that we want to become the default option for?
Mel: 19:16 Alright, where do we go from here?
Dan: 19:18 Well, this is the bit where we do our social media handles.
Mel: 19:20 Okay, let's do it.
Dan: 19:21 You go first
Mel: 19:23 Alright. You can find me on twitter, on Instagram @DrMelW. So, Dr. Mel W. You can also find me on LinkedIn.
Dan: 19:31 You can find me on a bunch of those sites as well. And I am @DanMonheit, no doctor as we painfully learnt, a couple episodes back.
Mel: 19:39 Still hurts, does it.
Dan: 19:40 Still hurt.
Mel: 19:41 If you guys have enjoyed this episode and we really hope you have, please feel free to give us a review by iTunes or Stitcher.
Dan: 19:48 Yeah. Ratings are good too. And also you should totally subscribe.
Mel: 19:52 Yeah, 'cause that way you can listen next time.
Dan: 19:54 Exactly. And the next episode, we'll just start in three, two, one.
Mel: 19:57 Two, one.