The psychology of opting in

08 March 2018
Supporter StewardshipGovernance and Compliance
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There are many good reasons for putting supporters in control of how they are contacted but unfortunately, research shows these decisions are open to being biased by subtle factors. How the question is asked, for example, and the available options such as the default choice can be highly influential.

Making sure people feel in control when it comes to how they’re contacted is a key principle of GDPR and good fundraising practice. A consent ask (opt in) is required for email communications, while either consent or legitimate interest (opt out) is acceptable traditional direct mail.

Using opt out rather than opt in has been shown to significantly increase participation, including for prosocial behaviours. A classic, although somewhat debated, example is the percentage of the adult population on the organ donor list in countries with an opt in system such as the UK (38 per cent) compared to those with opt out systems such as Austria and Belgium (more than 90 per cent). In an experiment asking people whether they wanted to be donors, only 42 per cent opted in but when they had to opt out, 82 per cent agreed to be donors.

By understanding the different psychological mechanisms which make us more or less likely to say yes, we can hopefully design and test the best possible opt in asks (the lawful basis of GDPR should always be considered first). Research suggests at least three possible ways defaults can affect prosocial decisions:

Taking the easy option

I’m sure we can all relate to the feeling of having limited time and mental capacity to fit everything in. Even with something as quick and simple as ticking a box, people often simply choose the fastest and easiest option without realising that’s what is motivating them. For many behaviours, research suggests making something easier to do is one of the most powerful ways to increase the numbers of people doing it.

Social norms

In general, people like to follow the crowd and do what others do, especially if they’re unsure. This is particularly important when others are perceived as being similar to us and is a mechanism which is relevant to many elements of charitable giving. Sending a subtle message about what action the majority of others take would not be something supporters are aware of but it could still affect how many opt in.

Moral self-licensing

Once opting out becomes the default and so the easier and seemingly most popular option, getting supporters to opt in feels more like asking them a favour. This could result in the question of contact preferences being considered a moral one and becoming more like a donation ask. Unfortunately, some research shows after one moral action, people may feel licensed to be immoral on their next decision. When asking about consent follows a donation decision, rates of opt in could be decreased if supporters feel this is the charity asking them to be even more generous. This sense could interact with the point about social norms, as not being generous is more likely when it is perceived as what most people do.


These mechanisms all depend on what the default option is rather than the question itself. So perhaps a way to avoid these and maximise opting in is to avoid having a default at all. One way to do this would be question(s) on consent which require a yes (opt in), or no (opt out) response with neither option preselected or ticked in any way.

It is important to stress that this is just a suggestion which has not been tested. The best way to increase opt in for your organisation is likely to be specific and unique so it is vital to test different techniques with your supporters. These points also focus on how the options are presented and there are likely to be a range of other factors which make a difference such as the wording of the question and wider elements of the supporter journey.

Jo Cutler
Jo Cutler
PhD student at Sussex University School of Psychology
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