Doing Good by Doing Nothing?



A common theme running through debates on combating global problems like poverty and common change is the idea that something must be done. Usually, this is taken to mean that some prosocial behaviour must be actively encouraged and sought out: for example, encouraging people to recycle, or having public health campaigns to encourage people to vaccinate. These solutions typically require individuals going out of their way to do what is often a costly behaviour, and consequently, have only limited success. But what if prosocial behaviour could also be encouraged by making use of the passivity of human nature? What if people could do good by doing nothing?

This was the question that lead me, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faulmüller, Guy Kahane, and Julian Savulescu, to explore default effects in altruistic contexts. Our interest in this was spurred by reading about default effects (or the default bias).  A default is the choice alternative a consumer receives if they do not explicitly specify otherwise (e.g. your Big Mac meal being regular sized). Default effects refer to the well documented tendency for individuals to consistently favor the default option – in cases as diverse as insurance choices, organ donation, retirement plans, car choices, public pension schemes, and internet privacy policies. Most interestingly for us was the finding that really spurred general interest in the power of defaults: the documented effect of default options on organ donation (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).  Certain countries use an “opt-out” organ donation system (where one is automatically a donor unless one registers to not be), while others use a “consent-in” policy (where one is required to register if one wants to be an organ donor). Austria, which has an opt-out policy, has a staggering 99% of the population registered as organ donors. Just across the border, however, Germany has a consent-in policy – with a mere 12% as registered organ donors. Simply framing something as a default appears to significantly influence the choices that people make.

We thought this was a fascinating finding, but wanted to explore how such default effects might occur in everyday altruistic situations that involve immediate selfless behavior that is in the common interest. That is, in registering to be an organ donor, the cost of doing so (i.e., donating an organ) will only occur—if it occurs at all—once a person has died and no longer able to even experience this cost.  In contrast, most everyday altruistic behaviors – from helping in an emergency to volunteering to charitable donations—involve an immediate and discernible cost to the individual. How might default effects influence behavior in such contexts?

This was the question we addressed in this project, which has just been published open access in the European Journal of Social Psychology (access it here). In this paper we explored whether the known preference for default options in choice contexts—default effects—occured in altruistic contexts and the extent to which this could be explained through appeal to social norms. We found evidence in support of both predictions. We conducted four experiments in which we found that (i) participants were more likely to donate money to charity when this was the default option in an altruistic choice context; (ii) participants perceived the default option to be the socially normative option; (iii) perceptions of social norms mediated the relationship between default status and charitable donations; and (iv) a transfer effect, whereby participants translated social norms they inferred from the default option in one domain into behavior in a second, related domain.

As we highlight:

Practically, these findings highlight that the way donation policies are framed can have an important impact on donation behavior: in our third study, we found that 81% donated half of their earnings for taking part in the experiment to charity when this was the default option, compared with only 19% when keeping the money was the default.

Such findings – clearly – have important practical implications. For example, such a default policy might be implemented at a government level in tax returns by presenting small charitable donation as a default (to which individuals could easily opt out from if they wished).

As we discuss in the paper, when considering the practical implications of such work, it is crucial to consider expected public acceptability, which can have a strong influence on attitudes towards the policy and affect the likelihood that a policy could be put into action effectively. Specifically, policies tend to be perceived as unacceptable when people perceive an infringement to their freedom or if the costs for not complying are too high. In implementing a default policy, however, both of these key predictors of low acceptability are absent: placing an altruistic donation as an opt-out default does not significantly impinge on freedom and has low costs, for the donation is wholly voluntary and optional, and people can opt out from it with minimal effort. While we focused on altruistic and self- sacrificial decisions, this work has broad implications for encouraging prudential and moral behavior in a wide range of social and financial interactions. By structuring the architecture of choice, one hope is to encourage better behavior of citizens, politicians, those involved in financial institutions and indeed all social actors.

We end the paper by quoting Samuel Johnson, (1751) who famously said – “to do nothing is in every man’s power”. While no doubt in some cases it is better to do nothing than to act, we have shown that the passivity of human choice and the tendency to be led by social norms and default options can be harnessed to encourage more altruistic behavior.

Everett, J.A.C., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., Savulescu, J., & Faulmüller, N. (2014). Doing good by doing nothing? The role of social norms in explaining default effects in altruistic contexts. European Journal of Social Psychology.


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4 Responses to Doing Good by Doing Nothing?

  • HT says:

    The numbers presented are staggering. It’s clearly worth looking into.

    But people might not like being manipulated. If they are told that their biases are going to be used to make them more altruistic than they would otherwise have been, they might not appreciate that.

    In the context of paternalism, nudges are better than coercion, and at least they are for the manipulated people’s own good, condescending though that may be. But if the benefit is for others, and the bias exploits don’t replace what would otherwise be a tax, perception might be less favorable. Paradoxical effects on overall altruism could happen.

  • Julian Savulescu says:

    It is important people don’t feel manipulated. But is important to get across however the situation is framed – by chance, by ethical design or by a big company bent on making profits – psychological limitations being what they are, people’s choices will be affected. “Manipulation” is inevitable. The question is – which one should we choose? Lottery, capitalism or the one which will generate the most good? People romantically believe that there is some pristine virginal state that they are in and such interventions will bulldoze through it. There isn’t such a free virginal psychological state. Our psychology is corrupted by a multitude of past and present influences.

  • Keith Tayler says:

    ‘To do nothing is in every man’s power; we can never want an opportunity of omitting duties. The lapse to indolence is soft and imperceptible, because it is only a mere cessation of activity; but the return to diligence is difficult, because it implies a change from rest to motion, from privation to reality.’ I am with Johnson here and do not think our ‘tendency to be led by social norms and default options [should] be harnessed to encourage more altruistic behaviour.’

    The 2002 EU directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications (brought into force in the UK in 2003) was a somewhat confused attempt at controlling the use of default opt-ins (‘soft opt-ins‘ still plague use). The ESRC regard the practice as being unethical. Of course the NHS takes the opposite view in order to sell all its patients’ medical records to anyone who can make the slightest claim to be a researcher.

    Of course it is easy to use sly psychological tricks, much beloved by aggressive marketing organisations, junk mailers, cold callers and internet crooks, to encourage more “altruistic” behaviour. But that does not make it ethical

  • Tom Mone says:

    As the head of the largest organ donation program in the US and a frequent researcher, writer, and lecturer on international donation practices I need to share that no Opt-out countries rely on that law as the donation professionals always seek family consent. Further, when donation rates are standardized for relative death rates, organ donation and transplantation rates in the Opt-in US are among the very highest in the world and regions like California and many other states matches and exceeds the world leader Spain. Opt-out is no magic bullet…


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