How to Use and Improve Persuasion through Enhanced Defaults


DefaultBy Steve Martin, CMCT
Even though we may not recognize it at the time, many of the choices that we make in our information-laden lives are essentially choices made without the bother of choosing. Government policy makers, 401K savings plans and car dealers alike all employ, in some way or another, the powerful pull of the ‘default’ option.

For example enrollments in tax-efficient savings plans can be as much as 50% higher when the default for employees is one of automatic enrollment as opposed to an active opt-in. In a similar vein the willingness to carry an organ donation card is about four times higher in countries where consent to donate is assumed. The default option is also often used by marketers to persuade customers to receive email offers and marketing messages.

There is little doubt that setting a default option can often be an effective strategy to guide decision-making. However default options are not without their problems – and in such situations it turns out that the success of defaults can be enhanced by adding an insight or two from the science of influence.

First, it may be worth reviewing some of the reasons why defaults can be so very effective in influencing decisions and behavior. Perhaps the most obvious is that defaults work with, as opposed to against, peoples’ tendency to procrastinate. Believing that they may have more time in the future it might be tempting to go with the default option and make a better and more informed decision sometime in the future. Of course a significant number never get around to doing so. Loss aversion may also play a role, encouraging people to stick with default options because moving away from them may involve a loss of some kind. Defaults may also shape decision making because some people might assume that the default option has been chosen for a specific reason, in effect acting more akin to a recommendation.

However, despite their widespread occurrence, strategies that employ defaults such as the ‘opt-out’ policy can be problematic. Arguably the biggest challenge is that because default options require someone to make a ‘choice by inaction’ one could question a person’s commitment to any future implementation of that choice given that they didn’t actively participate in the decision. In fact there is some good evidence for this. Delia Cioffi and Randy Garner elegantly demonstrated this effect in a study they set up that attempted to persuade college students to volunteer for an AIDS education project to be carried out at local schools. Half the students were told that if they were willing to volunteer, they should indicate their intention by filling out a form. Others were told that if they wanted to volunteer, they should leave the form blank only filling it in if they were not willing to participate. While the percentage that agreed to volunteer was roughly equal there was marked differences in the percentage of people who actually showed up to participate several days later. Only 17% of those who agreed passively (by leaving their form blank) actually appeared as promised but 49% of those who agreed to participate through active means (by filling out their form) kept their promise.

Another challenge for defaults is that they are generally best employed in situations where there is one  single best course of action. Where one option might be beneficial for some but not for others or where choices need to be more tailored to individual needs, setting up opt-out defaults can be rather difficult. There is even a potential for default choices to result in unintended waste and inefficiencies. Imagine that your city council adopted a plan that required residents to respond if they didn’t want to recycle. A failure to respond could be mistakenly taken as an indication that residents intended to recycle leading to collection teams making many wasted trips.

So what can be done to benefit from the effectiveness of defaults and at the same time mitigate some of the drawbacks?  Employing insights from two principles of persuasion, consistency and scarcity, might provide an answer.

In a set of studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology Punam Keller from the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College together with Bari Harlam, George Loewenstein and Kevin Volpp tested an approach they refer to as an ‘Enhanced Active Choice’.

Step one of this Enhanced Active Choice approach required people to make a choice between two options rather than simply opt-in or opt-out of one option. In one of their studies Keller et al. assigned employees of an educational facility to one of three groups. Each group was offered the chance to receive a flu shot that would not only protect that employee’s health but would also save them some money on their monthly health insurance premiums. The first group (the opt-in group) was simply asked to:  “Check  the box if you would like to receive a flu shot this fall.”

The second group however was instead asked to make an Active Choice between two options. Specifically they were asked to “ Check  one of the following options: I will get a flu shot this fall or, I will not get a flu shot this fall.”

As you might have guessed the results showed that people were considerably less willing to get a flu shot in the opt-in group as opposed to the Active Choice condition (the second group) (42% v 62%).  This provided further evidence that while the default option used in the opt-in group was reasonably successful, asking people to make an active choice (as in the second group) was far more so.

But what about the third group? This was the group where the Active Choice was enhanced by employing a second step. As well as providing people with the two options described above, the group also received a message that pointed out the potential losses for not getting a flu shot. Specifically they were asked to choose between the following two alternatives:

“I will get a flu shot this fall to reduce my risk of getting the flu and I want to save $50 or, I will not get a flu shot this fall even if it means I may increase my risk of getting the flu and I will not save $50.”

This two-step Enhanced Active Choice resulted in 75% of people indicating that they would get the flu shot. Across a number of other studies that included a large scale field study of some 11,000 CVS Pharmacy Benefit Members the Enhanced Active Choice approach was shown to be more effective.

While these studies were principally conducted in healthcare settings it seems safe to conclude that, assuming the choices offered are fit for purpose, available and ethically sound then employing a dual consistency / scarcity approach could be just as effective in more commercial settings. The key to this two-step approach will be first to consider the two choices that you would wish your influence target to actively choose from and second to enhance that choice with a simple message pointing out what could be lost if one choice is not acted upon. 


What examples of effective (or ineffective) defaults have you seen used and why were they so effective (or ineffective)?

The enhanced active choice approach tested in this study employed the principles of consistency and scarcity in succession to amplify the effect. What other examples of using two or principles of influence in unison have you ethically employed to good effect?                   

Cioffi, D., & Garner, R. (1996). On doing the decision: Effects of active versus passive choice on commitment and self-perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol 22, pp 133-147.

Keller. P.A., Harlam, B., Loewenstein, G., & Volpp, K.G. (2011).  Enhanced active choice: A new method to motivate behavior change. Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol 21, pp 376 – 383.

Click on the appropriate stars below to rate this article.  Thank you.

  • David

    Very interesting. Thanks.
    Not getting the shot, however, won’t “increase my chances of getting the flu.” It will instead fail to decrease my chances of getting it. There’s a difference — I think.

  • Valerie Hans

    very interesting. I am trying to think of ways to promote people’s responses to jury qualification questionnaires and summonses. how should the form be designed to increase the response?

  • RandNotAyn

    Sorry but I’m confused…
    “Check the box if you would like to receive a flu shot this fall.” (this is asking me if I would enjoy having a flu shot. I understand the intent is to mean ‘do I want the benefit of a shot’ but how can one bet on everyone being able to ignore the implicit second question?)
    The Active Choice was about my need, not my wants/feelings …
    “I will get a flu shot this fall or, I will not get a flu shot this fall.”
    So I would expect this to get better response because it speaks to my needs, not wants, and as such has both more urgency and significance attached.

  • Gregory Reeve-Wilson

    If you think of any ways to promote responses to jury questionaires and you are willing to share, I would be interested in your thoughts.

  • Jim Johnston

    Default settings play on peoples lazyness, as proved by the students on the aids programme. Not filling out the form was not a commitment to helping the programme, and the failure to turn up not an active choice not to go, they, like most of us, didn’t want to fill out a form. Email opt out is interesting, as here in the UK, the law has changed on data protection, so marketeers must now assume opt out, not opt in, and the check box, the active choice, is to check to receive emails. Where as before 20% would choose to opt ot, making the active choice, now (I believe) only 5% are opting in. The reason is down to lazyness. All that is being shown is that a small percentage actually read the text and make the choice, most of us just skip something we don’t have to do.

  • Vincentvdlubbe

    Do you know why people don’t respond? Find that out first. F.e. Usability issues? What’s the benefit in replying (compared to a non-response)? Why do people reply? Can you multiply them?
    Some more ideas:
    1. Put the people in a frame which stimulates them being more law abiding an contributing. See examples from Dan Ariely about cheating students and having them read a bible excerpt first, which made a marked difference.
    2. Also look into the way you design forms – Luke Wroblewski does wondeful stuff with it (internet-related). Idea: make it easy for them to answer, often these forms seem to be written in a language which prerequires at least a PhD :-)

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