Welcome to Easy Street

So I’ve been back in the online classroom again for the past five weeks – I just can’t help myself. I started Dan Ariely’s Beginners Guide to Irrationality last year but I had two other courses running at the same time, then I went to France for a week and couldn’t catch up so I ditched all three. I guess the lesson learned from that was to do one MOOC at a time.

I’d recommend this course to comms people, especially if you work in the public sector where many campaigns are about changing behaviour and winning hearts and minds. Basically Dan’s course is a foundation in behavioural economics and his books and academic papers are cited by the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team in their work. It’s not for the faint-hearted as there are about five 20-minute lectures a week, at least five academic papers to read, two quizzes a week and two written assignments if you want to so them. Dan himself is a bit of an entertainer and his lectures and pretty entertaining.

He starts by looking at visual and decision illusions – how we aggregate information over time which should help us to make decisions but invariably doesn’t. We think we know the answer to something but we’re usually wrong – the Foundation of Irrationality. Traditional economics works on the theory that we make rational decisions but if we did we wouldn’t let our credit card bill run up, we’d eat healthy food, exercise more and plan for the future. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to realise that I don’t think rationally. This course has given me some insight to the bad decisions I make and mechanisms to make better ones.

Like visual illusions we rely on contextual information to make all sorts of judgements and decisions and our brains interpret information by incorporating our expectations into our perceptions.

For an example of this watch the film below – this isn’t the exact one from the course but it’s the same principle.

So what’s this got to do with comms? Well, as comms professionals we can influence the architecture of choice. Decisions are influenced by:

  • environment
  • defaults
  • complexity

Us humans tend to take the path of least resistance and we don’t realise how much defaults matter. We have bad intuition and don’t realise that defaults, whether put there on purpose or not, make our decisions for us. What’s worse is we create stories to justify our actions. The best example of a default is organ donation. How can Belgium have a 98% consent rate while the Netherlands next door only has 27.5%? It can’t be down to religion or culture as these are practically the same in each country. It’s down to whether you have to opt in to donate or opt out to not donate – in the Netherlands you have to opt in whereas in Belgium you have to consciously opt out, which not many people do. We’re basically lazy and will follow the path of least resistance, especially if deviating from the default is more complex. Forced choices require a decision and doing nothing is not an option. People generally avoid changes, even if they are minor and even is another path is clearly better.


Dan’s very real example of this was a study of patients presenting with a sore hip who are then referred to specialists for a hip replacement (the default). Half of the doctors are then told that the specialists forgot to try Ibuprofen and the other half are told they forgot to try both Ibuprofen and Piroxicam. in the first group all patients were recalled to try Ibuprofen. In the second group only 28% were recalled and a massive 72% were sent straight for a hip replacement – it was simply too complicated to recall them to try both drugs. Scary stuff.

As comms people we should be aware of defaults – some are unintentional but create barriers to the behaviour we want to see but others can be used to get the results we want. For example, what could we do to make it less likely that people would save for retirement? We should:

  • ask people to opt in
  • provide lots of complex, difficult choices, preferably in a booklet
  • stress the importance of the decision

Does that sound familiar? Think council tax reductions, healthy eating, exercising. Badly designed defaults are everywhere.

I challenge you to spend a morning actively looking for defaults on your websites, in your leaflets and in your online forms and then you’ll have some insight into why they’re not working and people aren’t doing what you want them to do. It’s not their fault.
Remember – give them the path of least resistance.

Next week I’ll share some of Dan’s thoughts on persuasion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s