Bioethics Blogs

Doing Good by Doing Nothing?



A common theme running through debates on combating global problems like poverty and common change is the idea that something must be done. Usually, this is taken to mean that some prosocial behaviour must be actively encouraged and sought out: for example, encouraging people to recycle, or having public health campaigns to encourage people to vaccinate. These solutions typically require individuals going out of their way to do what is often a costly behaviour, and consequently, have only limited success. But what if prosocial behaviour could also be encouraged by making use of the passivity of human nature? What if people could do good by doing nothing?

This was the question that lead me, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faulmüller, Guy Kahane, and Julian Savulescu, to explore default effects in altruistic contexts. Our interest in this was spurred by reading about default effects (or the default bias).  A default is the choice alternative a consumer receives if they do not explicitly specify otherwise (e.g. your Big Mac meal being regular sized). Default effects refer to the well documented tendency for individuals to consistently favor the default option – in cases as diverse as insurance choices, organ donation, retirement plans, car choices, public pension schemes, and internet privacy policies. Most interestingly for us was the finding that really spurred general interest in the power of defaults: the documented effect of default options on organ donation (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).  Certain countries use an “opt-out” organ donation system (where one is automatically a donor unless one registers to not be), while others use a “consent-in” policy (where one is required to register if one wants to be an organ donor).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.