Observers typically assume that if people are dissatisfied with a state of affairs, they will work to change it. Cognitive and behavioral scientists know that this assumption frequently fails as a result of the “default effect”
For instance, Americans have widespread concerns about how software and entertainment companies are collecting and using their data or manipulating their choices.
Yet, in most cases companies do disclose what data they collect and what they do with it. Typically, they allow consumers to adjust their settings in order to exert greater control over what gets disclosed and how it’s used—and even provide the ability to “opt out” of features that users find undesirable.
Nonetheless, only around 5 percent of users meaningfully adjust their default settings. In fact, most will never even read the terms of service agreement. This is because, for most, it would require a prohibitive investment in time and effort to effectively navigate the “legalese” of service contracts, or to understand what the default settings are, identify which ones they’d like to change, how to change them, and the implications of those changes.
Hence, we arrive in a situation where, despite people being deeply unsatisfied with the status quo, almost no one attempts to do anything about it.
Politics by Default
The power of defaults is even more pronounced in the political sphere, where people tend to have (material and identity) investments in the established order which would be painful to sacrifice—and often existential uncertainty about what would follow if the status quo were overturned.
I first became aware of the default effect in the context of the Syrian Civil War. From my research, it was clear that most of Syrians did crave major changes in their government, yet they overwhelmingly rejected the armed uprising against the Assad regime.
Critically, this did not seem to be due to a lack of faith in the rebels’ prospects of success at overthrowing the regime. Syrians seemed to be far more concerned with the reality that no one really knew what would happen if the uprising was successful—none of the optimistic scenarios seemed particularly plausible or viable, while the most likely alternatives were highly unattractive. And so, Syrians have overwhelmingly aligned themselves with the state, albeit often begrudgingly.
U.S. politics are not radically different in this respect: the incumbent typically wins. Public dissatisfaction with the direction things are going–and even low approval ratings of the specific politician seeking reelection—these only tend to matter when the opposition party simultaneously puts forward a particularly credible and compelling challenger. Presented with a choice between the “the lesser of two evils” the public tends to stick with “the devil they know.”
Implications for Social Research
Understanding the default effect is not only useful for understanding and predicting social phenomena—it can help enhance the impact of social research as well:
Social scientists spend a lot of time and effort criticizing, deconstructing and otherwise problematizing various systems, institutions, ideologies and policies. However, it is much less common for researchers to develop alternative social arrangements that could be plausibly implemented in the “real world.” And it is exceedingly rare for social scientists to meaningfully engage with the public and policymakers in order to help translate those possibilities into realities. However, these latter steps are arguably the most important for actually mitigating the social problems researchers identify and analyze.
Again, people tend to stand behind established orders, even ones that are highly dysfunctional, even ones they don’t particularly like or believe in, unless and until there is a viable and attractive alternative they can rally behind instead. Absent options, critique approaches futility.
Social science could be much more impactful, therefore, if researchers utilized their expertise to not merely articulate what doesn’t work (and why)—but to really push themselves to think through what could work better. And not, could work in an ideal world, or what would’ve worked in a counterfactual past, or what will work in an envisioned future (assuming x, y and z). The focus should be on what practical steps can be plausibly taken, by actual agents, here and now, to make headway on social problems.
To be sure, this is a demanding aspiration for researchers: offering up specific and viable proposals requires an intimate level of familiarity with one’s objects of analysis and their surrounding milieu. It is far less glamorous to develop such an analysis than to level critiques, spin novel concepts or propose sweeping theories. But ultimately, this is the path through which social research is translated into social change. To shirk this responsibility for articulating grounded solutions for societal ills is to reinforce citizens’ tendency to simply accommodate an unsatisfactory status quo.
This piece was first published by Scholars Strategy Network.