Choice and Control in Forms: The Ethical Debate Behind Wording Questions


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How much control do you believe you possess over your actions, your thoughts, and the thousands of decisions you make every day, from deciding what to eat for breakfast to deciding how to conduct yourself at your job or how to solve conflicts at work and at home?
Psychologists agree that a sense of control (whether it’s real or imagined) impacts your general outlook on life and your overall happiness and success. A Scientific American study found that the majority of people surveyed (60 percent) believe that free will—the ability to make one’s own choices and decisions—exists. But even if we believe we have choice, even if we need to believe it to lead a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life, do we actually have any say or sway over the things we do?
Depending on who you ask and what studies you read, the answers are different, but the general consensus on the “How much choice do we have?” question is “Far less than you may think.”

When Forms Tread the Ethical Line

There’s quite a bit of convincing scientific evidence explaining why this is the case, but we’re going to look at just one example today that shows how something as tiny as the wording of a question in a form (yep, you knew we were going to tie in forms somehow) can influence people to make a decision they may not have intended to.
In 2009, psychology and economics professor Dan Ariely gave a TED talk entitled “Are we in control of our own decisions?” As one of the examples of how little choice we have compared to how we might perceive our lives, Ariely gave the example of a DMV form that asked about one’s willingness to be an organ donor and compared the findings in two groups of countries that took two different approaches to wording the question.
Among the countries were the Netherlands, France, the UK, Sweden, Denmark and Austria. One group of countries saw far greater rates of organ donor participation while the other group saw a very low participation rate. What set one group of countries apart from the other? Not differing religious or social values, as Dan pointed out first. Nope. The big difference was something far more subtle, and at first glance, almost trivial.
Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of the talk where Ariely describes the two ways that countries introduced the option of becoming an organ donor or not:

The countries on the left have a form at the DMV that looks something like this. “Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” And what happens? People don’t check, and they don’t join. The countries on the right, the ones that give a lot, have a slightly different form. It says, “Check the box below if you don’t want to participate …” Interestingly enough, when people get this, they again don’t check, but now they join. (Dan Ariely, TED Talks, 2009)

According to the transcript, this anecdote was met with laughter from the crowd, and at first it is a pretty funny story. If you think about it, it’s almost a clever ploy on the part of the form’s creators to get people to make what many might call an ethical choice without even knowing it. (For many religions, organ donation is encouraged and viewed as a selfless act of giving.)

Ethical or Unethical?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Is it good or bad that DMVs in certain countries essentially tricked people into making such a big choice, one they wouldn’t be around to regret, but still, an important choice that many would argue shouldn’t be made for them

The Case for Good

Whatever you think about the underlying principle of the DMV questions, it’s almost impossible to divorce the kind of choice involved. If a choice has little to no effect on the life of the person who makes it or if the choice would, in fact, benefit the greater good, would that change your answer?
Hypothetically, the tactic used in the DMV form could be used to get people to do a lot of great things, like donating to charity or supporting a worthy humanitarian cause. Taking a Utilitarian point of view, which prioritizes “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” when making ethical decisions, using the wording of a question to influence more people to take a socially beneficial action could be considered the ethical choice.

The Argument for Bad

But what if the action that people are tricked/influenced into taking isn’t something they’d approve of? Chances are you wouldn’t approve of that behavior but can think of multiple examples of internet scammers tricking people into falling for their scam or taking a certain action.
While it’s not exactly criminal (though it certainly could be risky if enough people noticed and disapproved of the behavior), this tactic could easily be used to get people to sign up for an email list they’re not interested in. As much as you want people to sign up for your list and engage with your content, is it really worth it if you had to trick them into doing it?

Our Take

The debate of how much choice is an illusion aside, we believe an effort should be made on the part of anyone creating a form to give the form recipients as much information and control over their answers as possible. In the case of a form, people generally assume that not taking an action (not checking a box, not selecting an option) means nothing will change, nothing will occur that they didn’t want to happen. Because this is such an accepted convention, we believe it’s the more considerate (and safer) choice.
Imagine presenting someone with the organ donation in person. You wouldn’t ask “Do you not want to be an organ donor?” right? You’d ask, plain and simple, “Do you want to be an organ donor?” And a simple “Yes” or “No” would be their answer.

What Should You Do?

After all this, you might want to take a look at your own forms and think about what your questions are or aren’t prompting the form recipients to do. If they are influential in some way, what are people being influenced to do? Ethical issues like this don’t often have a clear right or wrong answer, and the answer to what you should do in this kind of decision may depend on your exact situation, the nature of the form, the kinds of people you’re sending it to, and a number of other factors.
What do you think? Have you heard of any other ethical issues related to forms? We’d love to keep this ethics series going by exploring all areas of form-related ethics, so be sure to share your ideas and opinions with us in the comments below or on Twitter.

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