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Default Setting

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.

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john • September 10, 2007 at 7:03 am

Right on! I used to think that an outcome of my diet would be that eventually I wouldn’t have to think about food anymore, but then I realized that it would be too easy to fall back into checking the “default checkboxes” – I know myself well enough to know this will be a constant vigil for the rest of my (now hopefully longer) life.

“Stop at Arby’s on the way home and eat curly fries at red lights”

I sure can relate to this – although for me it was foot long Subway sandwiches. More than once I came home with my front a little messy. My clean car thanks me for not eating in it any more.


Rah • September 10, 2007 at 8:10 am

Your analogy is right on, PQ. I often find myself going back to your “motivation vs. discipline” post, and this default setting idea nicely develops that thought. [Gah, I sound like a professor!]


Mindy • September 10, 2007 at 8:21 am

Excellent post!


Princess Dieter • September 10, 2007 at 8:32 am

I have long advocated that organ donation be like that, default. And furthermore, anyone who opts out of donating is also opting out of RECEIVING organs. I think it’s hypocritical and unfair for someone to refuse to be a donor but STILL WANTS TO GET an organ when they need it. Tough. You don’t donate, you don’t get an organ. Period.



Hanlie • September 10, 2007 at 9:49 am

I learn something from you every day! You are absolutely right…


Tom Bastek • September 10, 2007 at 10:26 am

Hey there,

I lost 60 lbs in 3 months and thought it was a lot! You though, are kicking butt! (or ass, I guess, becuase it sounds funnier)

Tom Bastek

Hilton Head Popcorn Co.



BrightAngel • September 10, 2007 at 10:54 am

Insightful and Motivating.


Marianne • September 10, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Great post, PQ.

I am realising more and more how much my unhealthy habits have become the default setting. It never used to be that way, but slowly it happened. It will and is changing though!


Scale Junkie • September 10, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Unchecking the unhealthy habits short term has never been a problem for me, I have to figure out how to keep them unchecked long term.


Sally Parrott Ashbrook • September 10, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Great post–you explained that concept very well.


CEL • September 10, 2007 at 3:42 pm

I have been a fan of your blog for months for some reason my office unblocked the comments section today so watch out I’ll be posting more often! (lol)I love this post! When I am around people who are not trying to be healthier I see my former self and how I just did things without thinking. I went to a friend’s 30th birthday brunch buffet yesterday and everyone lined up for an omelet and I did too I asked for egg whites and they didn’t have them but I stayed in line anyway…As the chef poured tons of oil in the frying pan I had to actually THINK and say out loud well then I don’t have an omelet and I moved onto the baked salmon for my protein. That was HUGE for me to not just go with the flow. Un-checking those boxes takes time and effort but boy is it worth it!!Great post!


laurie • September 10, 2007 at 4:02 pm

Even though I have worked hard to “uncheck my boxes” as you so aptly said it, I still sometimes find myself momentarily on autopilot. Last week, for example, I was down in Macy’s Plaza to pick up a gift for someone at lunchtime and I thought, “Oh I can just pop into Carl’s Jr. and get some chicken strips…” and then I was like, “Oh wait a minute! I don’t do that anymore!” Weird, huh? It’s so deeply ingrained. I caught myself, but the initial urge was still there!


catherine • September 10, 2007 at 4:13 pm

You are so right, PQ and CEL and everyone else.

I was once at a WW meeting, and the leader was kind of moaning and saying, “Aren’t we THINKING about this way too much?” And I and some others said no, we can’t stop thinking, because it’s when we stop thinking that we get in trouble.

At least for the foreseeable future, it’s vital that I keep “thinking” about food/lifestyle choices, because I’m still in default mode about a lot of it.

Great reminder; thanks.


Jenny • September 10, 2007 at 4:16 pm

It’s all about choices and understanding that easy and fast isn’t better – this is a much needed post to read on a Monday. Thanks!


origamifreak • September 10, 2007 at 5:58 pm

I love that you actually put clickable checkboxes in that post. Now, what was the listserve address for unsubscribing from that Unhealthy Habits list? :-)


virg • September 10, 2007 at 6:37 pm

Great analogy! It seems like the defaults at restaurants are my problem. I have to make an effort to get special orders and substitutions, when I really just want a default so as not to feel embarrassed or difficult.


v'ron • September 10, 2007 at 7:29 pm

Yes, I like that we end users can check and uncheck the boxes.

So I’m not going to admit which ones I did.


Jen • September 10, 2007 at 8:06 pm

What an interesting way to think of it! I love the way you related the two. Thanks for making me think (and, as always, laugh). You rock the party PQ!


Heather • September 10, 2007 at 8:22 pm

Ha, cool post!

At my work, we’re encouraged to phrase things so the default position is what we’d like, and not mention that “No” is an option. Ah, sales!


Flora • September 10, 2007 at 8:26 pm

That is so true. Healthy eating and physical activity are like a hobby that you have to go out of your way to pursue, when they should be the default in our lives.


Sam • September 10, 2007 at 10:40 pm

You’re awesome PQ!!!


Israel • September 10, 2007 at 10:54 pm

it takes time, but eventually you would like to make living a healthy life a DEFAULT part of your life.


NB • September 10, 2007 at 11:01 pm

What a terrific post. This line “the default settings of the world tend to make you fat.” is just so darn true. Let’s all unclick those pre-programmed default settings!


Weightloss Diet Watch • September 11, 2007 at 6:49 am

Well a very informative post,the way you related is outstanding,u have done nice job.

keep up the work.


psychsarah • September 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

virg-I just wanted to comment and say that I can relate to your dilemma. I didn’t ever want to even ask for my salad dressing on the side a few years ago. I think I’ve figured out that for me, it has to do with a couple of things; one, not pointing out to anyone else I’m with that I care about what I eat (because then if I don’t lose weight, no will know I’ve failed), and two, I was taught to not cause trouble (as if pouring my dressing into a small dish would be sooooo much trouble!) Finally, it seems that other people feel like you’re judging them if they “choose the default”! It’s stuff like this that makes me realize what an emotional and interpersonal minefield losing weight can be! Thanks to PQ for continuing to inspire and make us laugh despite the minefield!


carol • September 11, 2007 at 1:58 pm

It’s really true–change your habits and you change your life.


MB • September 11, 2007 at 2:20 pm

I need to change all my default settings but I know changing them just isn’t enough. I need to find out how to super glue them in place so they can’t switch back on me when I get distracted.

You continue to inspire me. I look forward to each and every new post.

You are absolutely amazing! Rock on PQ!


KateG • September 11, 2007 at 5:22 pm

I definitely agree on the need to re-set the defaults! For me, it seems like some of them require a lot of work (switching the default to exercising instead of sitting on the couch remains a constant struggle) and a couple happened almost naturally as I lost weight(eating more slowly and in smaller portions)Happily, I get full much easier these days, although I have pigged out on occasion, eating too much too quickly is no longer the default.


Debbie • September 11, 2007 at 5:32 pm

That’s a great analogy. But sometimes, it’s hard to uncheck all those default boxes at once. I like to do them a little at a time so I can stick to the ones I think are most important.


anji • September 11, 2007 at 5:59 pm

But… but…. I LOVE Law & Order (especially Criminal Intent at the moment….)

:D I suppose as long as I watch the 1 episode a day and not the marathon, I’ll still be okay, right?


Zentient • September 12, 2007 at 9:48 am

So much is my mindset – is it “restraint” or “deprivation” when I make a food choice in the interest of well being? I can call it what I want and either suffer or make peace with food. I have to step back as an observer when I start to obsess about food, take note of it. I still agonize over the Sonic when I pass it daily. I want a big chili dog and fries. I don’t stop, but I tell myself some interesting rationalizations. Just a small hot dog and tater tots, just this one time., it would help me get over this stress,it won’t cost much. I am beginning to laugh at myself, how I give over so much energy to a hot dog and fries. I do the same thing with Girl Scout cookies. For several years, I have not eaten any, because when I do I eat a whole box/sleeve of them. When I buy them I give them away immediately. But I spend a lot of fantasy time on Thin Mints, Samoas, and Tagalongs!


elissa • September 13, 2007 at 5:21 pm

This is a really good, insightful post.

It’s so much easier to have an unhealthy lifestyle. It takes a lot of planning, thought and effort to exercise, eat right and take care of yourself. The minute I stopped having exercise forced upon me by the sports I was in and moved out of my parents’ house, where my mom cooked healthy food, my lifestyle defaulted to sedentary, junk-eating habits and my body began to reflect that habit.

I’m just trying to kick them now. And already, it feels so much better.


Masked Mom • October 1, 2007 at 8:47 am

Wanted to let you know I chose this post for my Perfect Post for September award–I tried to send an e-mail but it bounced. You can e-mail me if you want the button or more info…and you can read my post about your post on my blog. Thanks for a great post!


AbsolutelyBananas • October 3, 2007 at 1:26 pm

Great post! Glad I found you… here via the Perfect Post awards.


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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