Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 26, 2018
My father was a radiologist in St. Louis, Mo. (Midwestern values kind of guy), and he had a favorite saying, “If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.” In his case, I think he was channeling the Hippocratic Oath — “First, do no harm.”
From my perspective, the corollary is that there is a particularly American/entrepreneurial syndrome that celebrates the desire to keep balls in the air, to stay in motion, to create constant and continuous “action” — and the result, more often than not, is a disaster. That error is the result of Newton’s first law of motion — a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by outside forces. (And those forces are often irrational and neurotic.)
In other words, both Hippocrates and Newton make a strong case for (at times) doing nothing. But, doing nothing can also be dangerous and counterintuitive. To explore that further, let’s check in with Margaret Neale, professor of management at Stanford Business School.
She says that more than 8,000 Americans die each year while waiting for an organ transplant. “This does not reflect a lack of empathy, so much as a lack of will.” Eighty-five percent of Americans approve of organ donation, yet few actually bother to sign up as donors. Check your driver’s license right now, and see if it has the little dot that gives permission to use your organs for someone else if you happen to get hit by a truck. Good intentions, followed by inaction.
The premise is simple. In the case of organ giving, the obvious solution is to make “yes” the default option, rather than having to affirmatively choose “yes.” The book “Nudge,” by Richard Thaler, makes this case persuasively, but Neale has done some more research that calls into question that assumption. She set up a test in which player No. 1 (the choice architect) gets to set the desired option as the default option before presenting that choice to player No. 2 (the choice maker). The assumption is that player No. 2 would statistically opt for the default option by a wide margin. Wrong. But don’t feel badly. She surveyed the 1,500 members of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and they voted 90.1 percent in favor of the default option (the best one) being picked.
It turns out that across all categories, (business executive, medical student or non-professional, the default was only picked about 50 percent of the time. In other words, you can lead a horse to water and show him a bucket and half the time, he will kick you in the head and ignore the water. This is called “default neglect.”
Neale thinks this is a huge missed opportunity. She puzzles as to why defaults are ignored half the time. Her conclusion is that “there are small changes in how we present decisions that can dramatically affect the quality of people’s lives.” How we make health choices and 401(k) choices and insurance choices are strongly impacted not only by what the default option is, but also how it is presented. By nature, we are lazy, and like the society, you would think we would always pick the default, but we don’t. And the reason is marketing.
I find this fascinating. My nature is prickly and I do not want to be manipulated, but I also get tricked frequently (think of the magazine renewal racket — I have paid for The New Yorker through 2024).
Now the solution to the puzzle is complicated. How do we make the default the obvious choice when it is clearly in our own best self-interest? Back to Thaler and all the thinkers who have written extensively about decision-making, trying to explain why we continue to do stupid things.
And in the largest sense, how does our country frame decisions for us to make that encourage us to choose what is not only best for us, but also for the country? (Think health care, immigration, military, budget — need I go further?) It comes down to presentation and to education. Neale says, “Academics have failed to present status quo bias in a way that fully engages policymakers.”
Doing nothing can be liberating and provide space and time to consider the world and contemplate your navel, but it can also lead to incredibly adverse consequences. For example, 47 percent of eligible Americans didn’t vote in 2016. It seems that doing nothing is actually doing something.
Rule No. 549: Do, do, do.