Doing good by doing nothing? The role of social norms in explaining default effects in altruistic contexts

Jim A.C. Everett, Lucius Caviola, Guy Kahane, Julian Savulescu, Nadira S. Faber
European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(2), 230-241

We explore whether the known preference for default options in choice contexts—default effects—occur in altruistic contexts and the extent to which this can be explained through appeal to social norms. In four experiments, we found that (i) participants were more likely to donate money to charity when this was the default option in an altruistic choice context; (ii) participants perceived the default option to be the socially normative option; (iii) perceptions of social norms mediated the relationship between default status and charitable donations; and (iv) a transfer effect, whereby participants translated social norms they inferred from the default option in one domain into behavior in a second, related domain. Theoretically, our analysis situates default effects within a comprehensive body of social psychological research concerning social norms and the attitude-behavior relationship, providing novel empirical predictions. Practically, these findings highlight that the way donation policies are framed can have an important impact on donation behavior: in our third study, we found that 81% donated half of their earnings for taking part in the experiment to charity when this was the default option, compared with only 19% when keeping the money was the default. Our work suggests that making use of default effects could be an effective tool to increase altruistic behavior without compromising freedom.