University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business

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Ethically Deployed Defaults: Transparency and Consumer Protection via Disclosure and Preference Articulation

Author(s): Mary Steffel, Elanor Williams, Ruth Pogacar

Status: Published
Year: 2016
Publication Name: Journal of Marketing Research
Volume: 53, Issue: 5, Page Number(s): 865–880


Marketers and policy makers are increasingly leveraging defaults to influence consumer choices—in some cases, to promote the consumer’s or society’s best interests, and in some cases, to promote the interests of the party instituting the default. Critics argue that deploying defaults without informing those affected is unethical because of their power to guide choices, but proponents caution that the proposed solutions, such as disclosing what the defaults are intended to do, could render them ineffective. Four experiments show that defaults can be effective when the intention behind them is disclosed, even when the disclosure informs them that the default serves the interests of the business instituting it rather than the individual’s or society’s interests, and even when consumers are especially motivated and able to make an active choice. However, an intervention designed to weaken the default by encouraging decision-makers to articulate their preferences before choosing can attenuate the effect of defaults serving the interests of the party instituting them while leaving intact defaults serving society’s interests, providing a potential solution for consumer protection.


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