Whenever I install a new app or piece of software, the first thing I do is go into the settings and see what I can change.
Sometimes I’ll specifically want to do something practical like turning off notifications. Mainly though, my fiddling is driven by the assumption that it’s set up out-of-the-box to be suitable for most people…and I’m not most people, damnit! I’m a unique snowflake and I know my own needs better than anyone else.
This behaviour isn’t normal. Actually, it’s very not normal: research has found that when it comes to software, 95% of people never deviate from the defaults.
What aren’t you questioning?
This goes far beyond technology. Across everything in life – big and small – what proportion of people accept the defaults?
What proportion of people accepted the default of getting a job, rather than finding another way to make money?
What proportion of people do one of the most common 5 “normal” hobbies at weekends?
What proportion of people put their kids into the closest decent school without considering if there are alternatives?
What proportion of people go on holiday for a week in the summer to one of the 10 most popular destinations?
What proportion of people watch professionally produced TV/streaming shows in the evenings, rather than more niche YouTube creators?
What’s the proportion for any of these? I have no idea. But I bet 95% isn’t far off.
Just to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with any of these activities or behaviours. I do many of them myself, and in many cases they’ll be the most popular because they really are best option for most people.
My point is that most people settle for these “default” options without exploring whether there are better ones out there.
Defaults exist for a reason
Two, in fact: one practical, and the other potentially more sinister.
The practical reason is that it’s just easier.
Even if you work for yourself, it’s easier to gravitate to taking Saturdays and Sundays off because that’s when your friends will be available.
If a phone manufacturer shipped a device that forced the user to make an active choice about 50 different settings before they started using it, they’d get a lot of frustrated customers and bad reviews.
The more sinister reason is that the person designing the system can set the defaults for their own benefit, knowing that most people will just accept them.
A bank can set you up with a default account that pays minimal interest, and require you to specifically switch to a different one. A software company can make it so you have to specifically opt out of having your data sold to third parties. A government can do all kinds of things it’s probably best not to think about.
And actually, there’s a third reason: we need defaults.
Making choices is exhausting. No-one has the time or energy to think through every last aspect of everything. Without defaults, your entire life would become one giant trip to Subway, where by the time you’re asked which dressing you want you’ve already made so many bread- and salad-related decisions you just want to shout I DON’T CARE, JUST GIVE ME WHATEVER OTHER PEOPLE HAVE! Or maybe that’s just me.
Which defaults should you question?
So: you don’t have the time or headspace to question the defaults everywhere, all the time. In most cases, it will make sense to go along with the 95%. But there are two categories where I believe actively choosing your own settings can make an important difference to your life.
The first category is whichever few areas happen to be particularly important to you. I’m pedantic enough that I do care about the precise setup of the software I use, so it makes sense for me to change those settings. For you, it might be the specification of your car or the investments in your pension account. Getting things close-to-perfect in these areas will affect your happiness, so it’s worth the mental energy.
The other category where it’s worth questioning the defaults is the most significant aspects of almost anyone’s life:
- Where you live
- How you earn money
- Who you spend time with
Between them, these three things affect the experiences you have during practically every minute you’re awake. They play a large part in determining what opportunities you’re exposed to, and what memories you create.
It’s possible that the defaults you’ve been presented with for each of these just happen to be perfect for you…but given their importance, isn’t it worth dedicating a little effort to checking?
A word of warning…
95% of people will be actively resistant to questioning these big, important defaults in their own lives – and won’t be happy when they see you doing it.
If you make a “different” choice, 19 out of every 20 people will think you’re crazy. A couple of those people will react angrily, because the mere existence of another option threatens their comfort in the choices they’ve made.
But think of an area – however small and insignificant – where you have thought deeply and changed the defaults to find options that work better for you. Think how much better that part of your life is for having done so. Now imagine that difference applied to your entire life.
Isn’t that worth a bit of effort and discomfort?
1 thought on “The power (and danger) of questioning the defaults”
I love this article, all my thoughts summarised and made sense of.