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The Default Choice, So Hard to Resist

The Web offers choice and competition that is only one click away. But in practice, the power of defaults often matters most.

This article in the NYT flags some interesting points on technological defaults and privacy.

THE default values built into product designs can be particularly potent in the infinitely malleable medium of software, and on the Internet, where a software product or service can be constantly fine-tuned.

“Computing allows you to slice and dice choices in so many ways,” says Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland. “Those design choices also shape our social, cultural and economic choices in ways most people don’t appreciate or understand.”

Default design choices play a central role in the debate over the privacy issues raised by marketers’ tracking of online consumer behavior. The Federal Trade Commission is considering what rules should limit how much online personal information marketers can collect, hold and pass along to other marketers — and whether those rules should be government regulations or self-regulatory guidelines.

Privacy advocates want tighter curbs on gathering online behavioral data, and want marketers to have to ask consumers to collect and share their information, presumably in exchange for discount offers or extra services. Advertisers want a fairly free hand to track online behavior, and to cut back only if consumers choose to opt out.

Defaults are part of a rich field of study that explores “decision architecture” — how a choice is presented or framed. If you want to learn more, read the 2008 book “Nudge,” by Richard H. Thaler.