Making vegan the new normal: change the default option

Here’s the conundrum: people don’t like to be told what to do and they don’t like to be pushed into doing something. Yet at the same time, they will often not do the right thing by themselves. How do we solve this?

Part of the answer may lie in what is known as “choice architecture“, a term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. Choice architecture is about getting consumers to make better (healthier, more sustainable, or whatever…) choices by presenting their options in a certain way, like putting healthy drinks in a more prevalent spot in the cafeteria than sugared drinks. Through choice architecture, people are nudged, or gently pushed in the right direction.

Commercial companies have of course used this technique for ages, but with commercial interest in mind. Supermarkets, for example, will put prime (or sponsored) products at eye level, where the customer will see them first.

When we give people a nudge by designing their environment, our intentions are more benign: what we basically try to do is to make it easier for consumers to behave the way we want them to behave, and to make the undesirable behavior more difficult.


One specific kind of nudging is to change the default option. The default option is what you get when you leave the settings unchanged. When you enter a form on a website, there might be a checkbox below the form saying “subscribe me to the newsletter.” This checkbox can be on by default, or off by default. If it’s on by default, people have to take action to turn it off. So turning it on by default will get you more subscribers (though in this case it may sometimes not be legal to set it to on by default).

Let’s look at a more real life example. Regarding organ donation, chances are that in your country, the default option is that after you die, your organs will not be donated to other people who might need them. So if you want your organs to be donated after your death, you have to take action (opt-in). Imagine, conversely, that you have to take action in order to prevent your organs from being donated (opt-out). In this case, where governments “presume consent”, there will be a much higher availability of organs.

Here is in an example in our own field. Thursday Veggieday is a campaign by EVA, the organization I founded and worked for. The idea is much like Meatless Monday: that people start with one day of the week to go veg. The city of Ghent, where I live, adopted this campaign and made vegetarian meals the default option on Thursday in its 30 publicly funded schools. If the pupils want meat even on that day (or if their parents insist), they have to signal that beforehand. The result is that about 94% of the pupils eat vegetarian on Thursday. The default option was changed.

The campaign image of EVA's Thursday Veggieday school campaign. The caption says: "Phew, it's Thursday!"
The campaign image of EVA’s Thursday Veggieday school campaign. The caption says: “Phew, it’s Thursday!”

There are many situations and occasions where a vegan default option could be installed, or experimented with. Basically, this tactic could be used whenever any business or institution offers people meals but is afraid of taking away people’s “choice” to eat animal foods. Meals served at seminars or conferences, for instance, could easily be vegan by default. During sign up, registrants could get an option similar to this one:

vegan default

The nudge to do the right thing could be increased by writing something like “meals are vegan for sustainability reasons.”

Changing the default option in this way has a double effect. Directly, it lowers the consumption of animal products. More indirectly, it shows that vegan is not as abnormal as people think, and that meat eating is not as normal as people think. Changing the default option thus contributes to making vegan the new normal.

I think changing the default option is a very promising strategy that should be applied more often. It may be especially useful when pushing for policy change.

In a follow up post, I give another concrete idea for changing the default option, which at the same time is a challenge for any individual or organization to pick it up and try to make it a reality.

Image source

Further Reading: Nudge, R. Thaler and C. Sunstein
Thursday Veggieday campaign by EVA (Dutch language)