crossing pedestrian

Why is Changing Behavior So Hard?

read time - icon

0 min read

Jul 17, 2018

My grandmother used to say “change is hard”. Two recent examples reminded me of this simple wisdom.

1) I had recently gotten a promotion of six months of Netflix with our cable provider here in Israel.  As I became more and more hooked on Netflix, I began to worry about the inevitable moment my Netflix would be cut off.  And then one day, while checking my credit card, I realized I had been charged.  “Oh!” I realized, “It must have been one of those ‘if-you-don’t-cancel-we’ll-just-assume-you’ll-continue’ things.”  And guess what? I still haven’t cancelled.  Doing something to change a status quo is hard.  Here, the company intelligently created the default that I’d have to opt out.  And guess what? I haven’t bothered to exert the effort to cancel.

2) I recently discovered a very good new cell phone deal with a new company.  The third, fourth, and fifth lines were free with unlimited data for the next year.  No commitment.  No change of phone number.  I was sold, and I tried to talk my in-laws into joining me.  There were simply no downsides.  They, however, had been with their old company for years.  They said “we’ll think about it” (i.e., “no”).  Here, they were continuing with the status quo, despite the clear irrationality of it.

Both of these examples, although different, remind us that we humans, are not always making logical, rational decisions.  Psychologists call this tendency to stick with what we have the Default Bias or Status Quo Bias, and sure enough, research has shown my in-laws are not the only ones who will stick with a given mobile company out of habit (Khedhaoria, Thurik, Gurau, & Van Hecket al., 2016)

A powerful illustration of this bias to avoid change was published in Science (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).  The authors compared organ donation data by country, and found that, in countries where organ donation is the default (that is, people have to opt out of donating rather than opt in), a greater proportion of the population are organ donors.  Consider, for example, Austria and Germany–two countries that are geographically and culturally similar.  At the time of their publication, Germany had an organ donation rate of 12% compared to Austria’s rate of  99.98%.  The difference?  In Germany, you had to opt in, whereas in Austria, the default was organ donation.  In other words, similar to my Netflix promotion, you had to “contact them to cancel”.

The power of the default has been used to nudge humanity towards more environmentally-conscious choices.  For example, in 2008, Rutgers University changed their printer settings to have “print on both sides” as the default, and guess what?  44% paper reduction! (

In one lab study, subjects were told to pretend they were undergoing a remodeling of their home and the contractor had outfitted their house with lighting. All subjects were given information about the costs and benefits of this choice, and then asked if they wanted to switch, at no cost to the alternative.  When the default outfitting was energy-efficient lightbulbs, the energy-efficient bulbs were chosen twice as often (Dinner, Johnson, Goldstein, & Liu, 2011).

Keeping with the theme of saving the environment, conference participants were given the option to add an additional cost to their plane travel with a donation to offset the carbon cost (e.g., planting trees or investing in alternative energies).  When acceptance of the policy was presented as an opt-out alternative (the extra fee was already included and participants had to tick off that they would like to opt out), more people accepted the extra cost as opposed to when you had to explicitly tick a box.  After all, it’s somehow psychologically more palatable to accept a fee that’s already on your bill than to charge yourself extra, even though mathematically it is the same cost (Araña & León, 2013)

Defaults have been shown to influence nutritional choices.  A recent study (van Kleef et al, 2018) highlighted how when whole wheat bread (as opposed to white bread) was set as a default at a sandwich stand, 94% stuck with this default option (as opposed to 80% sticking to the default when the white bread was the default).  Likewise, people usually will stick with whatever milk (e.g., 2%, whole, skim) is the default milk at their coffee shop (Colby, Li, & Chapman, 2014).

Let’s look at an example to figure out why this might be.

Imagine you are checking out of a pet store, and the cashier says “We automatically include a $1 donation to help homeless animals.  You can opt out if you’d like”. You find yourself saying “fine”.  The morality of helping animals aside, would you have been as likely to add $1 to your bill if she had framed it as “do you want to add a $1 donation to help homeless animals?”

Why does the former frame work better?

First, we are a bit lazy.  “Should I give the $1? Should I not? I don’t want to think about this!”  If I don’t want to think, I just go along with what someone else decided for me.  Less effort.  And if I have to make a call to cancel?  Or fill out a form, or even worse, stand in line and then fill out a form to opt out?  Definitely easier to just stick with the default.

Second, a default seems like the recommended choice.  If I order from a McDonalds screen and the default is the small french fries, I assume that they are suggesting that is the appropriate portion for one person.  Here that $1 donation is the default—we assume it’s the norm.

Third, defaults often represent the status quo, and change usually involves a trade-off.  Consider a new job.  There will be the cost of moving, the emotional toll of leaving coworkers and the discomfort of a new place.  We worry about what losses we may incur if we change the status quo.  This loss aversion prevents us from wanting to take the “risk” of change.  No, there isn’t much trade-off to giving $1 in this case to homeless animals, but the point is our brain might be wired to be conservative.

There are real consequences to humanity not learning how to overcome our tendency to stick with the status quo.  This is exemplified in the following case (Montpetit, & Lachapelle, 2017):

Soil contamination is a serious global environmental problem.  There are estimated to be over a million sites in the U.S. and Europe alone where soil is contaminated, leading to chemicals which can get into the food supply and threaten the health of populations.  A low-cost alternative to conventional (and more expensive) removal methods has emerged in the last 20 years.  Pytoremediation is the use of living green plans for in situ removal, degredation, and containment of contaminants in soil and water.  It is a low-cost way to improve the economies of developing countries, and the plants can even be beautiful flowers that can be sold.  Why would anyone be against this?  Montepit and Lachapelle conclude that the Status Quo Bias is the barrier to accepting this new innovation.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

More about our services
The AI Governance Challenge book

The AI Governance Challenge

So, what’s the solution?  All change starts with recognizing our own limitations first.  If we know that we (and others) have a tendency to stick with the status quo, we may know it’s going to take a little more effort from ourselves and others to get change.  Indeed, Montepit and Lachapelle highlight the importance of disseminating knowledge to those on the ground. Explicit exposure to the scientific knowledge increased acceptability of the innovation.


Araña, Jorge E., and Carmelo J. León. “Can Defaults Save the Climate? Evidence from a Field Experiment on Carbon Offsetting Programs.” Environmental and Resource Economics54, no. 4 (2012), 613-626. doi:10.1007/s10640-012-9615-x.

Colby, Helen, Meng Li, and Gretchen Chapman. “Carrots By Default: Are Healthy Defaults a Blessing Or a Curse?.” ACR North American Advances (2014).

Dinner, Isaac, Eric J. Johnson, Daniel G. Goldstein, and Kaiya Liu. “Partitioning default effects: Why people choose not to choose.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 17, no. 4 (2011), 332-341. doi:10.1037/a0024354.

Johnson, Eric J., and Daniel Goldstein. “Do Defaults Save Lives?” Science 302, no. 5649 (2003), 1338-1339. doi:10.1126/science.1091721.

Khedhaouria, Anis, Roy Thurik, Calin Gurau, and Eric Van Heck. “Customers’ Continuance Intention Regarding Mobile Service Providers.” Journal of Global Information Management 24, no. 4 (2016), 1-21. doi:10.4018/jgim.2016100101.

Montpetit, Éric, and Erick Lachapelle. “New environmental technology uptake and bias toward the status quo: The case of phytoremediation.” Environmental Technology & Innovation (2017): 102-109.

Van Kleef, Ellen, Karen Seijdell, Monique H. Vingerhoeds, René A. De Wijk, and Hans C. Van Trijp. “The effect of a default-based nudge on the choice of whole wheat bread.” Appetite 121 (2018), 179-185. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.11.091.

About the Author

Yasmine Kalkstein

Yasmine Kalkstein

United States Military Academy at West Point

Yasmine is currently an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she also serves as the Lead Integrator in the Character Integration Advisory Group. As a Fulbright Scholar, she spent a year working at the Medical Decision Making Center at Ono Academic College in Israel. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from University of Minnesota and her BA in Biopsychology from University of Virginia. She is interested in the fields of character and leadership development, medical decision making, education, and human-centered design.

Read Next


The potential and pitfalls of AI in healthcare

The use of algorithms and chatbots in medicine holds immense promise, from easing the burden on healthcare workers to improving patient outcomes and accessibility. However, the path to fully realizing this potential is paved with serious equity considerations that cannot be ignored.

Group of employees smiling in an office setting

Yes, You Are a Cog in the Machine – But, That's a Good Thing

Sometimes, feeling like a cog in the machine feels terrible, but today, we examine why that shouldn’t be the case. Explore how feeling undervalued in 'invisible' roles can lead to imposter syndrome and what organizations can do to foster a culture of recognition and inclusion.

African woman using advanced technology. She is interacting with a holographic display

Rooted Revolutions: Innovating for Africa's Future

How is Africa transforming its education systems with homegrown tech solutions? Explore the journey towards decolonizing education, the challenges faced, and the revolutionary potential of African EdTech innovations.

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?