‘Default Bias’: Inside the weird thinking shortcut that marketers use against you

Hardhat
5 min readSep 6, 2023

A behavioural science expert has lifted the lid on the weird “thinking shortcut” that is stopping you from getting a better deal. Originally shared by News.com.au.

There is no denying that many Australians are feeling real pain with the ever-deepening cost of living crisis.

Consequently, we’re consciously cutting back on shopping, eating out, buying new clothes and travel plans.

Yet recent findings from Finder revealed that Aussies are losing out on millions of dollars by setting auto-renewals. Their research discovered around two in three (67 per cent) of Aussies — the equivalent of 13.6 million people — set at least one of their services to auto-renew in the past 12 months, despite being hit with sky-high bills.

It may have crossed your mind to call your bank, power company, internet service provider or insurer to negotiate a better deal. No doubt, you’ve also thought about deleting, or at least seriously culling, the long list of other subscription services you’ve signed up for over the years. Still, despite your best intentions, for some reason, you haven’t quite gotten around to it just yet.

Don’t feel too bad. It’s not your fault, it’s your brain. You’ve fallen victim to a thinking shortcut known as Default Bias, which refers to how humans will often just accept the path set out for us without considering other options.

Default Bias gives us a way not to think, which impacts everything from how we drive to work to the way we shop at the supermarket and the credit card we’ve used since 2006.

Why? Well, most of the time, our brains are cruising on autopilot, using shortcuts so we can spend our precious mental energy on more important things.

It is hardly surprising, considering we make approximately 35,000 thousand decisions daily. If we stopped to evaluate each one, we’d never make it past breakfast.

So, suppose you received a fantastic deal from your internet provider two and a half years ago. Unless you’re in dire financial straits, you may not be feverishly researching other internet providers to see the deals they’re offering today. In fact, according to industry experts, most Australians have never changed their internet provider.

Another example is having a variable rate on your mortgage. You implicitly know that you can call up and negotiate the actual rate you’re paying, yet making the appointment or calling the bank remains elusively to-do. You want to do it. You know you should do it. But somehow, the weeks and months roll by. It’s almost as if there is a thinking black spot. Well, there is — Default Bias.

But be warned — your bank won’t call you any time soon to offer you a better deal. You’ve got to take the initiative and shake them out of their comfort zone. It’s a cold hard fact that financial institutions take comfort in the knowledge that most of us are so hamstrung by Default Bias that, more often than not, we stick with the status quo, lethargically accepting the easiest option already in play.

As the CEO of an advertising agency, I know marketers also take advantage of Default Bias.

It’s the reason they spend a fortune building strong brands and running reinforcement advertising to prevent you from questioning whether you could be getting a better deal elsewhere.

Knowing how powerful Default Bias can be, I end up in the same poorly choreographed dance with my car insurer every single year. They send me a renewal letter. I call them and say, “Hey guys, I just got my renewal. I’ve been with you for a long time. I don’t want to shop around. But I know I can get a better rate. Is there anything you can do for me?”

They pause, tap some keys (for dramatic effect) and sure enough, there’s $150 or $200 off just for asking the question. $200 for 20 minutes of my time? That’s pretty good ROI in anyone’s books.

Another way marketers use Default Bias is to get you on board with honeymoon deals or free introductory offers, whether it’s your first meal kit delivered free, a month’s free membership on a subscription service, free trials of premium apps or a free week on a new streaming platform.

Marketers love offering cancel-anytime contracts because they know the sheer amount of mental energy you’ll need to cancel your subscription means you rarely will. If you’ve been bombarded of late by streaming services desperate to give you a free month, now you know why.

Most of us are all too familiar with the feeling of having live subscriptions to half a dozen of these services, most of which we don’t remember signing up for and none of which have the one show we actually want to watch.

As I look through my phone, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many of the apps that now inhabit it began their life as a free trial. The same is true for real-world services, too, especially those oh-so-convenient subscriptions that took off like wildfire during Covid.

One method is to go old school and print out your credit card statements from the last three months. Picture: iStock

Never-ending, magically appearing toilet paper, wine, shaving kits, dog food and underpants — all of which have become regular features of our lives with no discernible start or endpoints.

Unfortunately, just knowing about Default Bias is not enough to defeat it. We must take deliberate, proactive steps that contradict the very way our brains are wired.

One method is to go old school and print out your credit card statements from the last three months. From here, it’s easy to go through the charges line by line and work out what you no longer use (or simply don’t understand — $1.49 charge from Apple each month, I’m looking at you).

On the flip side, you’ve also got a degree of power in this economy.

There are many acquisition-hungry businesses in the market offering fantastic introductory offers, so the time is ripe for negotiation, even with businesses you already use.

But beware, even though you’ve read this article and committed to printing, reconciling, calling, cancelling and negotiating like your life depends on it, Default Bias will have other plans for you, like settling in and watching that awesome new series on the random streaming site you’ve just signed up for (and the first month is free).

Dan Monheit is a behavioural science expert and the CEO of Hardhat, a creative agency built on behaviour.

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Hardhat

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