Nudges and Green Defaults

By Gabriel Halm

There has been a lot of buzz in the fields of economics and psychology about nudges. This hype has recently started to spill over into the mainstream with popular books being published about nudges and behavioral economics. Richard Thaler, one of the pioneers of behavioral economics, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017, helping further legitimize it within the economics domain. Since the world of nudges can be vast and at times complicated to navigate, this article plans to focus on one specific type of nudge that can have a significant positive impact on the environment if implemented properly. We will borrow the name from a paper by Sunstein and Reisch (2014) and call these nudges, green defaults.

The idea of a green default is simple. As the name entails, when developing a product or designing a place such as a public space or building, there are default ways people are intended to interact with these items. As the developer or designer, you play the pivotal role of a choice architect, who creates the product in a way to emphasize a certain way to use the product. Since defaults and choice design can sound vague and ambiguous, the best way to understand is through examples. Some classic examples can be found in everyday objects we use in the office such as lights and printers. Designing lights with sensors and timers can have a huge impact on electricity consumption by automatically turning off when everyone has left the room. If all commercial buildings and private households had these technologies in place, we would already observe impressive energy reductions. This example is not just for light designers and engineers to keep in mind but also architects, city planners, and construction managers. Often people building or planning projects in a city are faced with choices between products (in our example lightbulbs) and must make a choice on the ones to choose. The way we frame this choice can have a significant impact and once this choice is made it usually sticks and is hard to change direction. In a paper by Dinner et al. (2011), the researchers found that people will tend to choose the default option between choices. Setting the default of lights to be energy efficient in this case results in more energy efficient lights going into houses and buildings. While the option to switch to inefficient lightbulbs is always available, humans in general will take the path of least resistance and choose the lights that have been stated as preferred by the choice architect. Additionally, when costs are involved, the framing of the choice will help people rationalize the choice in favor of the default option. If the default is the green option, people will pay more attention to the long run savings of choosing the energy efficient option and focus less on the slightly higher upfront costs for the investment.

The second example of printers is more straight forward but equally effective in reducing the use of resources. The scenario is simple, set the printers to print double-sided as the default option. This has immediate impact and as people normalize the default of double-sided printouts, it continues to have a long-term resource reduction of around 15% as seen in one study (Egebark & Ekström 2013). Rutgers University in the U.S. also performed an analysis when they switched to double-sided printing and found a 44% reduction of paper used!

As one can see, these defaults are an extremely effective tool to use on the road to sustainability and should always be considered and determined with care and diligence. Incorporating conscientious defaults into the design of your project can have long lasting impacts. People indifferent between choices tend to avoid what economists call an “effort tax” and will choose the easiest option. That is, when they do not have a strong opinion of either choice, they will commonly opt for the default. As well, the default is often chosen by consumers who have little information on the product or do not have the time or capacity to analyze the different options and therefore will trust in the defaults chosen by the choice architect. For your next project or product design, keep these ideas in the forefront and see where you can make a change for the better. If you are interested in learning more on nudges and defaults, I recommend my references below.


Isaac Dinner et al., Partitioning Default Effects: Why People Choose Not to Choose, 17 J. Experimental Psychol.: Applied 332 (2011).

Johan Egebark & Mathias Ekström, Can Indifference Make the World Greener? (IFN, Working Paper No. 975, 2013)

Sunstein, Cass R. and Reisch, Lucia A., Automatically Green: Behavioral Economics and Environmental Protection (September 19, 2013). Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2014. Available at SSRN: or

Thaler, Richard H., Sunstein, Cass R. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, And Happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

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