It is well known that the default option for a choice hugely influences the outcome of peoples’ decisions. Governments exploit this regularly by, for instance, using opt-out rather than opt-in schemes for pension plans. The idea here is to encourage people to choose the ‘right’ thing without actually constraining their decisions making in any way. People tend to be comfortable with an arbitrary choice of default option for a new scheme. For existing schemes, a decision to change the default option from the status quo might meet with considerable opposition. However, using the power of the default option to influence peoples’ choices could potentially have a huge impact on problems that our society currently faces.
Consider the problem of unplanned pregnancies. They are hugely costly in terms of the emotional and monetary impact on both the families and the health system. Steven Levitt has famously written a paper connecting the number of unplanned pregnancies to the crime rate. Unplanned pregnancies result from the default state of fertility of both men and women. Imagine a solution in which a drug was intruduced to the water supply which rendered either men or women infertile. Suppose that there was a freely available pill which fully restored fertility, so the choice whether or not to have a baby was still unrestricted but the default option was changed. The problem of unplanned pregnancies would essentially be eliminated.
For a more ethically difficult question, consider the problem of HIV transmission. HIV transmission occurs through unprotected sexual contact. Ideally we would inoculate people against HIV to prevent the spread of the disease. However, if that were not possible (and it currently isn’t) then we could prevent the sexual contact in the first place. Suppose the drug in the water now removed peoples’ libido and the free pill restored it. Again, the choice set hasn’t been restricted and the transaction costs of the decision are very low, but the default option has changed: now people default to having no sexual contact. This change in behaviour would, no doubt, hugely reduce the rate of HIV transmission.
Note that in both of theses cases there are massive costs, to both individuals and to society, that would be eliminated if the default option were changed. In both cases huge amounts of money are presently spent to prevent pregnancy or HIV transmission. Yet there would likely be huge resistance to the implementation of either scheme on ethical grounds. Do humans have such a huge status quo bias that we avoid implementing obvious solutions to immensely important problems simply because we’re resistant to changing default options that clearly aren’t working for us? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes.