Design Your Default: How To Create The Best Environment For Making Decisions

If you’ve ever thought that you were good at making decisions, you’re not alone. Most of us think that we are very deliberate in our behaviour and that our actions are a direct product of our independent thinking.

Except that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 2003, Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein conducted a study about organ donation rates. They were looking for solutions to increase the number of organ donors, but their findings revealed far more than that. The researchers gathered data from 11 European countries, and were startled by what they found.

Countries such as Belgium, France, and Portugal had over 99% of their citizens signed up as organ donors. In contrast, countries such as Denmark had only a 4.25% donation rate. The disparity could not be more pronounced.

The researchers were confused. They initially suspected that the difference could be explained by cultural factors, but realised that it wasn’t the case.

design your default

For example, Denmark and Sweden are located next to each other and have many social and cultural similarities. You would expect their behaviour to be similar as well. Yet, Sweden has more than 20 times as many organ donors than Denmark does.

What’s going on here?

One Form Makes All The Difference

Recent research in psychology depicts preferences as constructed. It suggests that the way a request is framed can substantially influence an outcome.

As it turns out, the difference in consent rates was due to the type of system that each country had in place. The countries with low rates of organ donors sent out a form which gave people the choice to opt-in to the donation scheme. Almost no one did.

On the other hand, countries with high organ donation rates automatically enrolled people, but gave them the option to opt-out. Similarly, few people acted on this option.

Intuition would tell us that being an organ donor is a personal choice, but this finding completely debunks such a notion. The way the option was framed made all the difference despite how the ultimate decision to become a donor lay with the individual.

It’s also what behavioural economists know today as the default bias. To avoid the discomfort of making complex choices, we inherently prefer the default option and to maintain the status quo. It’s natural human inertia.

This demonstrates just how much your environment can affect your behaviour and decision making. Much as we believe ourselves to be rational, we can’t help but respond to external cues.

Design Your Default

If a simple form can make all the difference when it comes to important choices such as organ donation, consider how other defaults in your life can affect the choices you make.

Defaults — and their designers — are powerful. They make decisions for us that we are not even aware we are making. Rather than accepting whatever is handed to us, we should strive to optimise the default decisions in our life. We should design our own defaults.

In the book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein propose that we can influence behaviour through nudges. They explain:

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

You can design your default to serve as one such nudge. Because we make decisions based on the environment that we are in, choice architecture can tremendously affect the quality of the decisions we make. Designing a good default ensures that even if we do nothing, we would still do the right thing by sticking to the preset standard.

Once you change your environment, you change your life.

Designing Your Environment

Choice architecture starts with making sure we never have to rely on willpower or motivation to make good decisions. In other words, we make it easy to do what’s good for us.

On the other hand, we can place hurdles in the way of bad decisions. That forces us to tap on our willpower — which we know is limited.

Stacking the deck this way allows us to make small gains every day. Over time, this compounds and can be the difference between the life we want and the life we are forced to lead.

You can do so in a number of ways:

Remove distractions such as your phone. Keep your phone out of sight when working. Optimise your phone usage by rearranging your apps on the home screen: put the apps you want to use in prominent positions and not the ones you use the most.

Be mindful of what food you keep in the fridge. Put healthy foods on the counter and make them easily accessible. If you’re looking for treats, purchase food that needs to be cooked. You’ll get the nutrition you need and avoid mindless eating.

Prepare for your workout the night before. Set aside clothes for your workout. Fill up your bottle and pack your towel. Make your future self decide whether to opt-out of your workout rather than having to opt-in.

If you work in an setting where everyone is unmotivated, mix with negative friends, or have distractions around you all the time, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to do important and meaningful work. You’ll never be able to achieve your goal or become the person you want to be.

Our environment influences how we act. Most of us fail to understand that the good habits we seek to develop, or behaviours we want to inculcate, start off with having the right environment. You need to seize control of that, and design your own defaults.

Become An Architect

No default option is inherently bad. Many of our present cognitive biases have developed in a natural bid for survival. It happens that this can lead to poor decision making based on an outdated framework.

Armed with this knowledge, we can actively design our default to ensure that it’s conducive to our goals. Our environment shapes a lot of our behaviour, but we can shape our environment too.

Be someone who does that. Design your default today.