The Default Bias

The Default Bias is another common human cognitive defect.  It seems that to avoid the discomfort of complex choices, we humans usually opt for the default supplied to us.  Thus many of our “choices” are not choices in any real sense.  This is further evidence for the illusory notion of both free will and the reflective intentional life.

The Default Bias can be seen in religion.  Greater than ninety percent of religious people belong to the religion of their birth — the default religion offered to them by the accident-of-birth.   Heck, even later converters choose from only those right in front of their noses.  But least self-righteous, hyper-rationalists dismiss the Default Bias as a uniquely theistic defect, let me illustrate this bias among largely atheistic Europeans.  The example below is taken from a 17 min TED talk by Dan Ariely (Duke University) on behavioral economics.

When looking at organ donation rates in European countries, we see that the distribution is bimodal — high donators and low donators.  Though people in these countries will object, the following pairs of countries are more similar than not and yet have opposite rates: Netherlands-Belgium, UK-France, Denmark-Sweden.  Intuitively inspecting which country falls into which mode reveals no clear pattern.   So what causes this difference?

Simple!  The Organ Donation check box on their driver license applications differ.  The low donating countries have the default as “I will NOT donate”, where as high donating countries have “YES I will donate” as the default.

Low Donor Countries

Leave it unchecked and your organs will NOT be donated

High Donor Countries

Leave it unchecked and you become a donator !


  • HT to Leah for the video
  • Luke does a superb interview with Stephen Maitzen (Atheist philosopher at Acadia University in Nova Scotia) where they discuss the accidental nature of belief choices using interesting phrases like: “The Argument from Divine Hiddenness”, “The Demographics of Theism” and “Clustered Distribution of Theism”.  Give it a listen if you have time.
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10 responses to “The Default Bias

  1. So, is this merely a simple manner of people not paying attention? I imagine selecting whether to check or not to check the box is not a mandatory thing, so many just leave it the way it comes and never really consider it, leaving the choice to some governing body.

    Which is still a lot like the way many people inherit religion . . .

  2. @ tysdaddy
    It would be interesting to see the results if a “donate” , “don’t donate” box existed and licenses weren’t granted if one of the boxes were not filled.

  3. CRL

    Pretty surprising that any countries have a 100% donation rate, even given that donation is the default. You’d think that there’d always be a few people who want to hold onto their organs, no matter what. What’s also interesting is that the donating countries all fall in the same 98-100% range, while the non-donating countries range from 4-28%.

  4. I’m very familiar with this phenomena and, as tysdaddy suggests, it’s most probably due to not paying attention.

    I help run a large conference and we’re trying to start a conference recording program to video tape a lot of the sessions so we can offer them to people who couldn’t attend. The sessions are run by volunteers; they submit proposals to present and we have a committee that picks like 600 of them. To keep things legit when it comes to copyrights, we had a part of the form to check if you wanted to opt out of the recording.

    The result is nearly identical to the chart you listed. Almost everyone so far has selected that they are fine with their presentation being recorded.

  5. Thanx for the example Janus.
    My intuitions on this issue then appear to me more cynical and skeptical that Janus’s and tysdaddy’s. Though many may just miss the fine print, I agree with the lecturer that many find the pros and cons too weighty and just choose the default that you write. The other parts of this lecture point to the same phenomena of human innate irrational choices — it is the foundation of behavioral economics — which, btw, I am not necessarily a fan of.

  6. Earnest

    Hi Sabio! This is a major issue in America because we have such a low rate of organ donation, notably among those of African descent. Organ donor awareness campaigns to my knowledge have flopped. I think we have “opt in” rather than “opt out”.

    I am left wondering if Caucasians by virtue of wealth-induced leasure time actually read the forms and make cognitive preference decisions. Conversely, those who are under economic pressure and feeling rushed might simply ignore a question which they might answer in the affirmative if they felt they had the time to think about it.

    Thinking is a hassle but sometimes it could save someone’s life!

    Sabio, does the Libertarian in you condone or reject a governmental assumption of a desire to donate one’s own dead body for the good of others? Does the concept of self-determination survive the grave?

  7. Yes, most of our beliefs, by default, are what was given to us by our family of origin.

    Changing those is very hard. But good rhetoric helps, like stating requests with affirmative language, like in the countries where organ donations are more frequent.

  8. Pingback: The EU Consumer Policy on the Digital Market: A Behavioral Economics View – The European Sting - Critical News & Insights on European Politics, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Business & Technology -

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