We often assume that we do what we do because of who we are. But the truth is, a lot of what we do is the result of where we are.

A fascinating study by researchers Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein beautifully illustrates this point. What they did was investigate the answers people gave to the following question:

Would you like to be an organ donor?

This graph shows the percentage of people, across a number of European countries, who are willing to donate their organs after they pass away.

Notice the huge difference between the countries on the left and the countries on the right. How can this be? At a first glance, you may think the reason for these results was culture or religion, but at a closer look, this doesn’t make sense.

Denmark and Sweden, The Netherlands and Belgium, Austria and Germany—these are all countries with similar cultures and religious beliefs. Still, their organ donation percentages are very different. How could this be?


The Default Effect

As it turns out, what explains these differences is the design of the form related to organ donations in each region.

In the countries where the form has an ‘opt-in’ design (“check this box if you want to donate your organs”), people tend not to check the box. In countries where the form has an ‘opt-out’ design (“check this box if you don’t want to donate your organs”), people also tend not to check the box. No matter which one of these form designs people are presented with, an overwhelming majority of them will choose to stay with what they already have.

In psychology, this tendency is known as “The Default Effect,” and it shows up all the time in our lives.


What Are Your Default Options?

We rarely pay attention to this, but the options we’re surrounded with every day have a huge effect on our behavior:

  • If we have cookies on the table, we’re likely to eat them.
  • If we have a remote control on the living room table, we’re likely to turn on the TV.
  • If we sleep with our phone next to our bed, we’re likely to pick it up first thing in the morning.

In many ways, we shape our environment and then it shapes us.

With that in mind, what does your default design look like? How well does it reflect the goals you want to achieve? The habits you want to adopt? The person you want to become?


Change Your Habits by Tweaking Your Default Design

Whenever you’re trying to change your habits, start with designing your environment. Ask yourself if it’s supporting or sabotaging the behaviors you’re trying to create. Then, tweak it to get the default effect to work for you every day. Here are some examples:

In other words, shape your environment in such a way that you turn to your desired habit automatically every day.

This is easier said than done, of course. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself reverting to your unhelpful behaviors from time to time (my email apps have a tendency to get mysteriously reinstalled now and then).

But if you keep being mindful of your default design, and keep adjusting it every time you fall back, you’ll gradually get better at changing your habits.



This article was originally published on Selfication.com. It has been republished here with permission.


Photo of popcorn on table courtesy of Jessica Peterson/Getty Images.