We often assume that we do what we do because of who we are.
But the truth is, a lot of what we do is the result of where we are.
A fascinating study by researchers Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein (1) beautifully illustrates this point.
What they did was investigate the answers people gave to the following question:
Would You Like to Be an Organ Donor?
This graph (2) shows the percentage of people, across a number of European countries, who are willing do donate their organs after they pass away.
Notice the HUGE difference between the countries on the left and the countries on the right. How can this be?
At a first glance, you may think some high-level reason like culture or religion probably caused these results, but at a closer look, this doesn’t make sense.
Denmark and Sweden, The Netherlands and Belgium, Austria and Germany — these are all countries with similar cultures and religious beliefs. Still, their organ donations percentages are very different. How could this be?
The Default Effect
As it turns out, what explains these differences is the design of the form related to organ donations in each region.
In the countries where the form has an ‘opt-in’ design (check this box if you WANT to donate your organs), people tend not to check the box.
In countries where the form has an ‘opt-out’ design (check this box if you DON’T want to donate your organs), people ALSO tend not to check the box.
No matter which one of these form designs people are presented with, an overwhelming majority of them will choose to stay with what they already have.
In psychology, this tendency is known as “The Default Effect” (3) and it shows up all the time in our lives.
What Are Your Default Options?
We rarely pay attention to this, but the default options we’re surrounded with every day have a huge effect on our behavior:
- If we have cookies on the table, we’re likely to eat them.
- If we have a remote control on the living room table, we’re likely to turn on the TV.
- If we sleep with our phone next to our bed, we’re likely to pick it up first thing in the morning.
In many ways, we shape our environment and then our environment shapes us.
With that in mind, what does YOUR default design look like?
How well does it reflect the goals you want to achieve? The habits you want to adopt? The person you want to become?
Change Your Habits by Tweaking Your Default Design
Whenever you’re trying to change your habits, start with your default design. Ask yourself if your environment is supporting or sabotaging the behaviors you’re trying to create. Then tweak it to get the Default Effect to work for you every day. Here are some examples:
- Want to learn more? Replace entertainment with educational apps in your phone.
- Want to be more productive? Use digital commitment devices like StickK, Freedom, and SelfControl.
- Want to sleep better? Ban all screens from your bedroom and place a great book next to your bed.
- Want to finish more books? Remove entertainment podcasts from your phone and install an audiobook app.
- Want to eat less? Get smaller plates. Seriously, it works (4).
In other words, shape your environment in such a way that you turn to your desired habit by every day by default.
This is easier said than done, of course. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself reverting to your unhelpful behaviors from time to time (my e-mail apps have a tendency to get mysteriously reinstalled now and again).
But if you keep being mindful of your default design, and keep adjusting it every time you fall back, you’ll gradually get better at changing your habits.
Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.
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