• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Want to Shake Up Status Quo? Account for the Default Effect

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.

More articles by:

Musa al-Gharbi is a cognitive sociologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC), where this article was originally published; readers can connect to al-Gharbi’s other work and social media via his website: www.fiatsophia.org

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail