Beware of the default

Beware of the default

In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein explain how altering default choices can produce mass changes in our behaviour. One of the examples the they provide is a positive change in students’ diets, as soon as the healthy and unhealthy lunch options were swapped on the cafeteria shelves, making the healthy one easier to pick up.

If you need more convincing, here’s a more relatable example. The nudge effect is also used in supermarkets, which place brand products at eye level. This makes them receive 35% more attention and they are the easiest to grab. Products on eye-level shelves are our default here.


Defaults are everywhere. They help limit the number of decisions we have to make every day. That’s about 35,000 decisions on average, so we employ shortcuts to help us manage this number. Much of the time we just go with what’s most easily available. After all, not all decisions are worth spending too much time on.

So what’s wrong with this?

Just like in the supermarket shelf space example, these defaults are not always working in our favour. While some may serve you very well, what happens when they don’t?

It’s going to be hard to perform well in training, if the default for your group of friends is to go out to drinking every weekend: to save money, if it’s socially acceptable to max out your credit cards every month: or to feel fulfilled at work if the default is to assess your performance by the time you spend in the office rather than by the work you complete.

Most defaults were created by people and organisations with their own agenda. While some may suit you well, you can always create your own defaults in place of the ones that hinder your progress.

How to start creating your own defaults?

Your willpower may be strong or weak, but the more tired we get the less reliable it becomes. We start out with a lot of it in the morning when we’re rested. As the day wears us out our willpower may decrease to a smaller or greater degree.

I don’t know about you, but my dieting or weight cutting was always more successful if I prepped my dinner before. In the light of this, it makes perfect sense.

Prepping your meal beforehand gives you a great new default, while desperately trying to think of something when you’re hungry can easily turn into giving up and digging out the 5-min pizza from the freezer. This is completely normal, but by controlling the default you can make such choices easier for yourself.

This is just one example, but imagine that the defaults always worked in your favour. How much easier would our lives be?

Optimising your defaults can take a long time. But sticking to one thing at a time slowly turns the count in your favour.

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