The Default Effect was most notably studied by Johnson, Hershey, Meszaros & Kunreuther (1993) and reveals how the fact of having a “default choice” available influences our decisions. Amongst all the options given to us when we need to make a choice, the default choice is the one that doesn’t require us to actually make any active decision as it has already been chosen for us. For example, when we install software on our computer, we’re offered a default installation option; we only need continue with the installation in a passive manner with all the functions chosen for us and this is the overwhelming (non-) choice made. The Default Effect is therefore the way in which any default option on offer is most likely to be chosen over anything else and so offering up a default option gives us a way of influencing people’s decisions.
Scientists believe this comes down to multiple reasons. Firstly, opting for a passive choice requires the least amount of thought process whereas comparing and weighing up different options can mean a lot of time spent evaluating so, especially when we are having a hard time deliberating between several similar options, choosing the default option requires the least mental effort. This allows us to reduce the already large number of choices we face every day and therefore concentrate on making decisions when it’s really important.
We’re also prone to choosing default options as we consider them to be recommendations. In the case of the computer software installation, certain functional choices we’d have to make might seem too technical or complicated for us so we prefer to simply follow the default option that we presume has been set up by someone who knows more than we do or we presume that it’s the default option because it is comprised of the settings most regularly chosen and will therefore probably serve our needs too.
Looking at default choices can also reveal how often we are likely to accept a choice that has happened by default without question whereas if we were asked to actively consider the decision and make a more thoughtful and informed choice we might not agree. For example, scientific studies carried out regarding the relation of the Default Effect on organ donation found that there are less donors in countries where consent is not given by default. If you are simply put on the organ donor list by default because you haven’t actively expressed that you do not wish to be one then you probably would never even really consider this. Whereas if you were asked to actively give your consent then you would be more prone to start thinking about it in detail and might become more emotionally involved and less likely to agree.
In web marketing, the Default Effect can come in to play whenever your customer needs to make a decision, whether that be about signing up to your newsletter, or choosing a product or method of delivery etc. Offering a default option when there is a choice you would rather they make (i. e. making sure that boxes to opt people in to receive your offers etc. are always pre-ticked) will increase the likelihood that your visitors will indeed make the choice you’re hoping for.