In France 99.9% of their citizens are organ donors, as apposed to only 28% of Americans. Why are the French dying to give people their kidneys and corneas more often than Americans? Because in France the default position is to be donor, whereas in most US states you have to sign something to indicate that you wish to be donor. According to the blog We’re Only Human run by The Association for Psychological Science this is because of something called “‘default heuristic’ which basically says: If there is a default position, don’t question it.”
Holy crap, that’s exactly how I got fat. It’s also why I keep getting e-mails about kitty litter. When I register with sites online to redeem my Paw Points from boxes of kitty litter or to comment on message boards or just to read the stupid New York Times online, I have to fill out forms – forms with lots and lots of checkboxes. Sometimes the boxes are unchecked, but sometimes they are already checked for me, as if the webmaster wants to save me the dreaded exertion of clicking my mouse. But usually the webmaster just wants to subscribe me to their e-mail list and sell my address to third party advertisers. If I want to keep my in-box on its spam-free diet, I’ve got to move my mouse two centimeters to the right and one centimeter up and click to uncheck that box. Otherwise, I get e-mails advertising rolling pet carriers that look like camping gear.
Humans like routines. We all have checkboxes that are automatically checked in our lives. Back in 2004 here’s what the form of my average day looked like:
PastaQueen’s life in 2004
Don’t bother to eat breakfast so I can sleep an extra 15 minutes
Prepare an omelet or oatmeal so I’m not starving by midmorning
Eat lunch at McDonalds so I can play the Monopoly game and win a million dollars
Eat packed lunch with Yogurt so I can enter sweepstakes and win a trip to France
Stop at Arby’s on the way home and eat curly fries at red lights
Think about what I’m going to cook when I get home while I’m stopped at red lights
Watch Law & Order marathon on TNT. Carey Lowell is in the cast. Must be season 7 or 8
Go for a walk and maybe someday run a marathon.
When I decided to change my lifestyle I had to actively start unchecking some of those boxes while I also worked hard to check the other ones. After several years, my default settings are now mostly healthy and active ones. It would be seriously strange for me to buy a pack of Mentos and eat all four rolls in a day, but back then it was not that odd at all.
I think one of the reasons the obesity epidemic is increasing is because the default settings of the world tend to make you fat. Most people don’t have to do a lot of exercise to survive. Deep-fried chicken wings are quick and easy to pick up from the drive-through and require less work than preparing something yourself. Habits and behaviors that tend to make you fat are the ones checked by default in our current ecosystem. For many people, if they want to be thinner or healthier they have to actively make a choice to uncheck those boxes. They have to make time to exercise or grill a chicken breast. They have to change the default setting.
But that’s really hard to do and I think it’s the reason why the obesity rate is just going to increase. I can just uncheck those boxes with my mouse, but actually making those changes in my life was very difficult. I couldn’t just click a link to unsubscribe myself from the “Unhealthy habits” mailing list. If I were to let things slide, I know my default settings could shift again. I’ve got to keep making that effort, every day, and make sure those boxes remain checked. I’ve also been living without cable television for over a year, so the dark suck of Law & Order marathons are no longer a problem.