I have recently released a working paper that I have co-authored with Cass Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University and c0-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The paper presents new data from an online experiment, which suggest that active choosing can be more effective at boosting participation than automatic enrollment because active choosing leads to stronger feelings of guilt. Here is the abstract:
Many officials have been considering whether it is possible or desirable to use choice architecture to increase use of environmentally friendly (“green”) products and activities. The right approach could produce significant environmental benefits, including large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality. This Article presents new data from an online experiment (N=1,245) in which participants were asked questions about hypothetical green energy programs. The central finding is that active choosing had significantly larger effects than green energy defaults (automatic enrollment in green energy), apparently because of the interaction between people’s feelings of guilt and their feelings of reactance.
More specifically, we report four principal findings. First, forcing participants to make an active choice between a green energy provider and a standard energy provider led to higher enrollment in the green program than did either green energy defaults or standard energy defaults. Second, active choosing caused participants to feel more guilty about not enrolling in the green energy program than did either green energy defaults or standard energy defaults; the level of guilt was positively related to the probability of enrolling. Third, respondents were less likely to approve of the active choosing policy than of the green energy defaults and standard energy defaults. Fourth, respondents appeared to have inferred that green energy automatically would come at a higher cost and/or be of worse quality than less environmentally friendly energy.
These findings raise important questions both for future research and for policymaking. If they reflect real-world behavior, they suggest the potentially large effects of active choosing — perhaps larger, in some cases, than green energy defaults.
Download the paper here.