Rules > Defaults > Choices

By replacing choices with good defaults and rules, we can limit our inclination to make bad decisions.

Good choices are hard to make consistently. 

For a start, they’re taxing on our brain, and our brains are expensive to run. Our brains use roughly 20% of our calories despite being only 2% of our body mass.

Making choices is also time consuming and takes up cognitive power we could use to get creative elsewhere. We also just make lousy choices. We choose things in the moment, which we later regret.

This is why defaults work so well, they make the lazy option, a good choice.

Let’s consider a simplistic scenario in which we would like eat less chocolate at work.

A good default in this case would be to always have an apple on our desk, in case we get peckish. Always having apples available as a snack, doesn’t stop us from eating chocolate, but we have to avoid or ignore the apple to do so.

The lazy option, becomes to eat the apple, which (in this case) we’ve decided is a better default option than chocolate.

Having good defaults allow us to make better choices, but only when we construct the circumstances. Putting an apple on our desk doesn’t help us when someone comes by and offers us chocolate.

One way to take this even further is to make the good choice, not just the default, but a rule. Remove the choice entirely.

This means moving from always making an apple available, to making a rule about only eating apples as a snack.

This might feel a little draconian, but in an area where we struggle with choices, it can really help to take the bad options off the table. Whenever we get hungry, the rule is “we only snack on apples at work”.

Note: making rules which eliminate choices can be constructive within a personal sphere, but isn’t a great option for when designing for architectures for other people. See dictatorship.

If someone offers chocolate, we don’t have to choose not to eat it because we can defer to the rule.

Sometimes it’s easier to be something as a rule, than to constantly have to choose. It’s easier just to be a vegetarian, than to always have to choose not to eat meat.

This small change can have a big impact, because simply changing the language we use from “we choose not to do that now” (a choice), to “we don’t do that” (a rule) eases the load on our brain which can have a huge impact on our behaviour.

For more on good defaults and rules:

Nudging: A Very Short Guide – Cass Sunstein.

A conversation with Dan Ariely.