The most disturbing side-effect I've experienced from studying Behavioral Economics is the realization of just how often I don't really think.

Thinking is hard. It takes energy and humans instinctively crave to save energy. This has served us well in our quest to dominate the planet. Now that we aren't dodging lions our desire to save energy leads to cognitive mistakes, or at least decisions that are not aligned with our true desires.

In 2003 a pair of psychologists wanted to better understand why people do not donate their organs. What resulted is one of the most widely cited studies in Behavioral Economics, "Do Defaults Save Lives?" (spoiler: yes!). The reason people do not donate their organs is not spiritual or moral. They are simply conserving precious thought energy. Countries that default to opt-in have more donations thus saving more lives than countries with a default of "no thanks!" That is the only difference. Countries that switch defaults saw the expected increase or decrease. Defaults are important and not just if you need a kidney.

This tendency to preserve energy is interesting because many people enjoy being in a position of making decisions. It's good to be the king. It's natural to equate making decisions with having power, and people enjoy being powerful. Being powerful takes up a lot of energy and there is no such thing as free energy. Even people at the highest ranks are susceptible to the influence, and deception, of cognitive biases and most certainly decision fatigue. Accepting defaults means giving up a degree of power in exchange for conserving energy for when we really need it.

How can default options conserve our precious cognitive energy?

We are defined by the choices we make. The most important decisions are not what about what we should do, but what we should not do. When you set out to really make a difference in the world choosing what you don't do is an amazing freedom but a massive burden.

"Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." – Steve Jobs

If the default answer of "Should we?" is no, little innovation will happen. That is the question where defaults don't belong, it is the most important question and deserves the utmost attention. Defaults help by allowing us to conserve energy in other, less important, decisions. Let those receive the benefit of defaults. For even better results let other people choose the default option.

A leader has two distinct responsibilities when it comes to decisions. The first is to be ready to say no and the second is to help generate alternative ideas so the experts may recommend the best course of action. Their recommendation is the default, and in most cases should be followed.

Generating alternative ideas can come from simple questions or direct challenges. This should be expected and embraced. A default that cannot be justified is arbitrary and arbitrary defaults are no better than no defaults. The point of a default option is not to avoid a decision, it is to simplify decision making and conserve energy.

When the decision is made (or merely agreed to), that isn't the final word. Part of the Do Defaults Save Lives? research was verifying how many organs were actually donated. The family of the deceased has an opportunity to stop the donation. In opt-in environments, 16% more organs were donated. The opt-in default did not remove any freedom. There was still an opportunity to choose when the unfortunate time came.

Maybe more organs would be donated if the choice of donating required a family sit-down prior to making the decision. That's a lot to ask of people and a very uncomfortable situation. Unless this were a mandated requirement, most people would instead choose to not donate at all just to avoid the situation. In most cases, that decision would never be necessary as our life expectancy is quite high. Defaults enable us to kick the can down the road and save potentially uncomfortable conversations until the time comes where they really need to happen. Defaults allow us to make a simple decision now rather than passively ignoring potentially uncomfortable moments and making no decision.

In closing, I'm going into the land of speculation (sometimes I wish I were a proper student, doing research and all that fancy stuff). A dangerous and common cognitive bias is called Sunk Costs. People myopically continue down a path because the over-valuation of previous energy and effort spent. We don't want to "lose" what we have invested. If disaster happens after following a default option, are people more willing to change course and cut losses more willingly?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Magnus D.