The power of defaults

Four ways to apply the default effect in your life

In 1999, a few friends created Napster, one of the most influential digital tools to this day.

Music streaming didn’t exist (Pandora came in 2005; Spotify in 2008). Hotmail was the dominant email platform (Gmail launched in 2004). Most people used dial-up modems to connect to the Internet.

Napster was a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing service. Its idea is simple. Anyone across the world can share their digital audio tracks (MP3s) with others. You can download music for free on your personal computer with an easy-to-use interface.

At its peak, Napster had 80+ million registered users on its network.

But how did Napster become so popular?

Default settings

One big reason is Napster’s default settings.

For P2P networks to work well, you need a lot of users and files. People used Napster to download songs but less so to share with others. Napster knew this.

They set the default option to automatically share whatever songs you downloaded with others. Others can download songs from you just as you are downloading songs from others.

Think of this as a two-way street. You download the songs you want in one direction. You allow others to download from you in the other direction.

While you can change this setting whenever you want, most didn’t. This fueled Napster’s growth. People got access to more files and faster download speeds.

Today, this is known as leeching and seeding. Leechers download files and don’t share with others (1-way). Seeders download files and share with others to download (2-way).

Nearly all P2P systems today have 2-way file sharing on by default.

Default effect

The power of defaults is known in behavioral science as the default effect. It guides many of the subtle actions we take in life, whether we know it or not.

You may also know it by other terms:

  • Opt-in vs opt-out

  • Explicit consent vs presumed consent

  • Nudges

  • Paradox of choice

  • Status quo

Whatever you call it, the default effect has powerful ways to get a desired outcome.

Why do most people stick to the default option?


Sometimes, it’s just too much effort to decide between options. We want someone else to do it for us.

Often known as the paradox of choice, we get worn down trying to making a decision.

Netflix recommended shows

This is why featured shows on streaming services like Netflix tend to perform well. It gives users who don’t know what to watch a simple option (and avoid the dreaded doomscrolling). Press Play and watch. It’s a low friction option.

Switching cost

The effort it takes to switch from one option to another is often too great.

Google pays Apple ~$20B annually to remain the default search engine on Apple’s Safari web browser. Safari is the default web browser for iPhones, iPads and Macs. You can change your default search engine at anytime.

Apple Safari

Why would Google pay so much when only 20% of people use Safari as their default web browser? Because most people search with their web browser’s default search engine. In this case, it’s Google.

Google knows the power of defaults so much that it’s willing to pay billions to stay the default search engine in Safari.

Google is the default search engine in Apple’s Safari web browser

About 60% of us use Google’s Chrome web browser. What’s the default search engine in Chrome? Google Search, of course.

Now you may be asking yourself: “Why do people use Safari for a web browser to begin with? I use Google Chrome. Doesn’t everyone!?”

Google Chrome

That’s because the default web browser for Apple devices is — you guessed it — Safari. The added friction of changing your default web browser is too great (or undesirable) for some.

The power of defaults is not only strong. In some cases, it’s a business model.

Help people help themselves

When you start a new job, many companies automatically enroll you in a retirement savings plan. The most common plan in the US is a 401(k).

You can opt out if you don’t want to participate.

As you can see from the chart, enrollment rates for auto-enrolled employees are often close to 100%. The enrollment rate for older hires, who had to opt in to a retirement plan when they were hired, is less than 70%.

Defaults can be a powerful way for companies to help their employees in a valuable way.


Perhaps there’s a reason why a default option is recommended. What happens if I choose another option? Am I losing something if I move away from it? Maybe the experts know something that I don’t?

Let’s continue with the 401(k) example. When choosing an investment strategy, people often stick with the default recommended target date fund. A target date fund is a mix of investments designed to help you retire at a certain age. It’s just one of many options you can choose to invest your money in.

Most people, however, are not financial experts. They’re comfortable staying with their employer’s recommendation. They assume their employer did their homework and knows more than them about this. They’d rather go with the recommendation and not risk losing out with their (uninformed) opinion.

Using defaults ethically

Be responsible when using default behavior. Some companies use it against you while others aim for transparency.

Tricks are bad

You may be thinking about the one time you got “tricked” into paying for something. Sadly, many organizations trap people with defaults. They make it difficult and confusing to opt out.

Planet Fitness

Planet Fitness is a popular fitness center in the US. They are known for making it extremely difficult to cancel your membership. Even if you sign up for membership online, you can only cancel in person at your “home gym” or send a letter by mail.

As you can imagine, people often give up trying to cancel. It’s overly complicated and the monthly cost of maintaining membership is low (usually $10/month). It’s not worth the hassle for some.

Don’t do this.

Reminders are good

What you can do is clearly communicate ahead of time that something important will happen.

I have a Verizon Wireless cell phone family plan. My bill is set to auto pay using my credit card on file. Verizon sends me a text message a few weeks before charging me. The message reminds me of the bill amount and date they will charge my credit card.

Verizon Wireless text message alert

Apply defaults in life

Try one of these methods to apply the default effect in your life.

1) Offer specific options

Give multiple options, but make them specific. If you’re trying to decide what to eat with your significant other, avoid asking, “What do you want to eat?” Instead, ask something specific such as, “Do you want Thai or sushi?”

2) Offer one option

Do you really need a choice for everything? Choices are not always a good thing. Think about having the default option be the only option. This can help you make a decision quicker.

3) Do not set a default

Force someone to make a choice by not setting a default. You’re more likely to know how they truly feel about something and can worry less about influencing them.

4) Prep in advance

Want to exercise first thing in the morning? Go to bed in your workout clothes and set your shoes by your bed. You’re more likely to workout after you wake up because you’ve already started the process.

Defaults are everywhere in our life and at work. Know how to spot them. Use them to your advantage when trying to influence behavior in a good way. Understand why something is a default when making a decision. Make defaults work for you.

Thanks for reading.

See you next week,