The million-dollar question: opt in, or opt out?

New research suggests that default settings matter tremendously, from software to organ donation. How should developers navigate this tricky terrain?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

How much does it really matter that an option is by default opt-in or opt-out?

More than you could ever imagine.

The New York Times' Steve Lohr had a nice report in this weekend's edition on default choices and how much they sway human behavior. His finding: default options matter tremendously, even for major life choices such as organ donation.

An excerpt:

Defaults, according to economists and psychologists, frame how a person is presented with a choice. But they say there are other forces that make the default path hard to resist. One is natural human inertia, or laziness, that favors making the quick, easy choice instead of exerting the mental energy to make a different one. Another, they say, is that most people perceive a default as an authoritative recommendation.

It's a field of study called decision architecture, and for us technologically-inclined types, it's present in everything from marketing campaigns ("How did I get this e-mail? I never signed up for this!") to the newest cloud computing services. (Think Apple got 20 million users to opt-in to iCloud? Think again.)

But a single yes/no box is one thing and complex privacy rules -- such as those on Facebook -- are another entirely. In a project called "Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out," Carnegie Mellon University researchers are studying why users have (and with how much) difficulty in changing these default settings.

The result: the majority of those surveyed found them too complex to manipulate. Worse, most found that the settings were less restrictive than they would have liked.

You could argue both ways here: users have a right to deserve privacy, and the Internet has a right to encourage sharing. (Otherwise, how could it exist?) But there's a big difference between a default and one that's difficult to change. Simply, choice on the Internet is not as cut-and-dried an option as we'd like to think.

Neither is the answer. I can't say for certain how I would balance the interests of the provider with the interests of the user -- after all, it's not a right to use a piece of software, but neither is it a right to fool people into acting against their own interests.

What would you do?

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