Research shows that policy defaults are seen as recommendations on important issues

May 01, 2006

Every year about 5,000 people die in the United States because there are too few organ donors. Unlike in some countries, where people are considered donors unless they request not to be, American policymakers have established "not being an organ donor" as the default and relatively few people go to the trouble of switching.

New research at UC San Diego, just published in the journal Psychological Science, indicates that people perceive the default option as a recommendation by policymakers and that this helps explain why few people request a change.

Four experiments by psychological researchers Craig R. M. McKenzie, Michael J. Liersch, and Stacey R. Finkelstein examined two domains -- being an organ donor and saving for retirement -- where default effects are known to occur and have important implications. The researchers conclude that, "policymakers need to be aware of the implicit messages conveyed by their choice of default."

One experiment asked participants for their personal views about organ donation and also asked them to play the role of policymakers choosing the organ donor default. Participants' personal views influenced their choice of default. For example, participants who agreed that people ought to be organ donors were much more likely to choose "organ donor" as the policy default compared to those who disagreed.

A second experiment showed that participants made predictable inferences about policymakers' views based on the policy default. For example, participants were much more likely to infer that the policymakers probably think that people ought to be organ donors when the policy default was "organ donor" than when it was "not an organ donor." Thus, this experiment showed that participants infer that the default is an implicit recommendation, and the first experiment showed that this is a reasonable inference.

A third experiment showed that participants inferred the default in retirement plan participation to be implicit investment advice.

A final experiment demonstrated that these inferences play a causal role in people's choices to stay with the default.

In conclusion, say the researchers, "Because many people are uncertain about their preferences, and much is at stake, these inferences could have profound implications. Policymakers need to be aware of the sorts of inferences, perhaps unintended, that people make on the basis of the selected default."

University of California - San Diego

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