DMVs and defaults that quietly drive decisions

Dan Ariely’s TED Talk (linked below) is one of my all-time favorites.

If you are not able to take 17 minutes to watch the full video, the part that has most impacted my perspective is only about 4 minutes long, from 4:55 – 9:00.

If you do not have time to watch anything or are only in a position to read for now, I will summarize that part briefly in the paragraph below, with my thoughts thereafter.

A study looked at the percentage of licensed drivers that are organ donors in several countries. Surprisingly, some seemingly similar countries had totally different percentages (i.e. 4% in Denmark vs. 86% in Sweden). The reason had nothing to do with the drivers and everything to do with the DMV forms. Denmark’s form said check this box to become an organ donor. Sweden’s form said check this box to “not” become an organ donor. Hardly anyone in either country checked the box.

That is how the word “not” on a DMV form led Sweden to have a few million more organ donors than it would have otherwise had with the same percentage of donors as Denmark. Presumably, that incremental number of organs in Sweden saved a great number of lives that were unfortunately and preventably lost in Denmark.

I think it is important to try to be more conscious of the decisions we are making, especially when there is a default option involved. We should strive to fall back on action as much as we do on inaction, checking the box as easily as we don’t. Lastly, we should be thoughtful when designing systems and default options for people now and into the future. It could mean the difference between Sweden and Denmark, and that could mean many lives.

I should note, I was fortunate to visit Copenhagen two months ago and came away with the impression that Denmark is an awesome place. This post is obviously not intended to suggest anything otherwise.