Landmark Forum Leader Articles


We’ve all likely heard about the deals Google makes—for example, guaranteeing millions of dollars to AOL and Mozilla if their search engines “default” to Google. If you think about people’s behavior on the Web, choice is essentially one click away, but mostly that choice is never taken. “Defaults” carry the day, not just on the Web, but elsewhere as well. Employees, for example, save far more in their company retirement plans if enrollment is the automatic option. In several countries in Europe, to be an organ donor, you have to choose to be one. In other countries, you have to select not to be one.

The chart shows the power of default settings that have been steering people to make choices that have huge impact on their loved ones; on their country’s medical system; on other people’s survival, families, and futures. It is surprising to think that something so personal, and with so much impact, is driven by default. We like to think that we have agency over our lives, especially regarding issues that matter, but research shows that even at a low level of complexity people tend to go with the default option.1If you then overlay this default tendency on a high level of complexity (with all that goes into being human: genetic inheritance, brain patterns, gender, culture, family environment, life experiences, etc.) default activity is essentially ubiquitous, and its impact multiplies exponentially.

Take the brain as just one example. From the moment we’re born, our brains take things in, sort them through, attach corresponding decisions and relevance, store and categorize them, and set contexts, leaving us with an aggregate knowledge that gets delivered when needed. While this gives us the ability to operate on automatic pilot—perform a raft of complex behaviors without any conscious thought, from tying our shoes to driving our cars—it’s a fairly limited type of learning. It happens essentially by downloading already familiar ways of seeing things in already existing categories, based on limited and often skewed information. This default activity going on in our brains is calling the shots in huge parts of our lives in ways we’re not ever aware of. But in terms of understanding, authoring, and having access to our selves, “We can no more explain who we are and how we act in terms of our brain activity than we would explain a dance in terms of a muscle.”2

We might think that by dissecting our lives into various parts (teasing out our early life experiences, or looking at our genetic make-up, let’s say) we’d have effective access to our selves, or that “cause-and-effect” reasoning would give us understanding into the how or why of things. But these approaches obscure a very powerful access we have to the nature of being human, and in just going down those paths we risk missing out on the authorship, the malleability, the full panoply and wonder available to us. What we are after here is the access—getting our hands on the levers and dials of our lives—a place where we have a say, where default ends and authorship begins. It starts with recognizing the far-reaching nature and pervasive influence of our default contexts–contexts that unwittingly shape how the world occurs to us, which in turn shapes our day-to-day choices and our lives.

National news, medical research, and a schoolchild’s experience are three examples that tell the tale.

The Washington Post arranged an experiment about the influence context has. In a Metro station, a youngish man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a baseball cap positioned himself against a wall, beside a trash basket. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and began to play. None of the passersby knew, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world—a man whose talents normally command $1,000 a minute. In the train station, he played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on one of the most valuable violins ever made. People barely stopped to listen. He was, in short, art without a frame. The frame matters.3

In medical and scientific research, we read repeatedly about tests where one group is given a placebo and another, the real medicine. When the group that gets the placebo experiences similar levels of improvement, the effect illustrates the power of context (those fundamental assumptions and conclusions the group holds about a physician’s expertise, training, advice, what was prescribed, the likely outcomes, and so on).

A woman friend we know has a daughter who failed a math test when she was 10 years old, and for years afterward thought that she’d never be good at math. Yet recently, when she took her college entrance exams, she was surprised to see that in math she’d scored in the top percentile. The impact and influence of what she came to assume many years earlier was, for her, striking. She questioned her score, then realized it was accurate, and knew she’d need to recalibrate her entire sense of herself, her career, her future, who she was.

The point here is that each moment’s meaning happens inside of the background of understanding or the context in which it “occurs”—and how the world “occurs” lives in language. It’s language that shapes us—from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception, to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. It shapes our experience of being human, the way we think, see the world, live our lives, who we are4 and it’s where the access to ourselves lies. We don’t act out of what is there or what we know, we act out of what “occurs” for us. In the case of organ donation, the default option occurs for us inside a context that doesn’t require attention, and so we let it lie, or in the case of Joshua Bell, we walk right by his remarkable artistry due to how the setting occurs for us. Who we are, our actions, our choices, are directly “correlated” to that occurring. We don’t see the context or the “occurring” itself, but only what they allow.

Recognizing this leads to seeing ourselves, our behavior and that of others in a new way—it doesn’t just lead to a different view, it gives us hands-on access to a world that’s malleable and open to being invented. It powerfully shifts our relationship to the world. It has the power to reveal and dismantle what we might normally have thought of as fixed, stuck—to get past our old assumptions about “the way things have been” or the way we thought “they had to be.” It’s where transformation lives; where default ends and authorship begins. And that leaves us with a world far more nuanced, rich, interesting, dimensional, and full of possibility.

1. Adapted from Cynthia Scott, “Dan Ariely’s SXSW® talk and the responsibility of form design.” (3/22/10)
2. Adapted from Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, Hill and Wang. (2/2/2010)
3. Adapted from Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” Washington Post. (4/8/07)
4. Adapted from Lera Boroditsky, “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”  (6/12/09)