Making decisions can be tiresome. That’s why our attics and garages have a tendency to get cluttered with junk. We know we do not need all that stuff, but the thought of sorting through it all and deciding whether to keep, recycle, or throw away each item is exhausting.
This tendency to avoid making decisions presents a challenge for people who want to nudge us towards outcomes they believe are in our best interests, or the best interests of society at large.
How do you persuade employees to save for retirement, or patients to become organ donors, or children to eat more healthily?
It turns out there is a way. It is about tapping into what is known as the power of defaults. Put simply, we will often go with whatever option is preselected for us, as that is the path of least resistance.
Most employers in the UK must now automatically enrol all qualifying workers into a pension scheme. Importantly, employees have to choose to opt-out of the scheme if they do not want to participate. This has been a huge success – only around 10% have chosen to opt-out.
In Wales if you die in hospital you are presumed to have consented to being an organ donor, unless you have expressly indicated otherwise. The British Medical Association is now lobbying for the rest of the country to take the same approach, which they believe will save 1,000 lives a year.
In the US some school dining halls now place fresh fruit at eye level, within easy reach and near to the cash registers. The cafeteria staff upsell fruit by asking “would you like an apple with that?” By making fruit not fries the default option children are consuming 25% more than before.
There is, however, a darker side to the power of defaults. Insurance and energy firms exploit our inertia when they lure us in with a good deal and then hike the price up each year in the knowledge many people will not get round to switching suppliers again.
And of course sometimes it feels good to make some decisions. And that’s why, this weekend, I am finally going to clear out the attic.
This article originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, where I am a guest columnist.