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responsibility by default vs. laziness

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legal warning: The information here should not be understood legally as financial advice. If you believe anything on this site is in error, please contact me. I am always open to corrections, new ideas, and new opinions...


Last week I stopped a pickpocketer from stealing ₪ 100 in my wallet, or at least that’s how I felt.

The culprit was my old friend Orange.  When I received my monthly cell phone bill, I noticed that I was charged ₪ 98 for various repairs on my cell phone.  I called up customer service and asked for an explanation.  Apparently, when I brought in my cell phone to be fixed a few weeks ago (battery was dying too quickly and they changed the front panel), I was charged ₪ 98 for the service.  This came as a shock to me because (1) I had the exact same repair done a year beforehand and it was covered under the maintenance fee I pay every month (2) I asked the guy if it was under maintenance at the time of the repair and was told “yes” and (3) I was never told I would owe any money – if I owed money for the repair, shouldn’t I have been told either at the time of the repair or at least when I received the item after the repair?

So I was sent so another department for some answers.  According to Orange (1) the rules of what is covered by maintenance changed sometime over the past year and (2) they have the right to charge me up to ₪ 100 for a repair even without my consent (they claimed that when dropping off a phone to be repaired one must sign a consent form allowing them to do so.)

The ₪ 100 policy is an interesting one.  They should be calling me and getting permission to do a service that charges me money. But they changed the default and in doing so changed the game.  Instead of making themselves responsible to ask to take my money, they make me responsible to make sure they don’t take money (and in this case, don’t even allow me that right).  And less you think this is a semantic policy change, changing the default position is a powerful tool that can have dramatic effects.

In one of his trademark style articles, Freakonomist Stephen Dubner discusses why similar countries have dramatically different levels of organ donation:

…take the following pairs of countries: Denmark and Sweden; the Netherlands and Belgium; Austria and Germany; and (depending on your individual perspective) France and the U.K. These are countries that we usually think of as rather similar in terms of culture, religion, etc., yet their levels of organ donations are very different.

So, what could explain these differences? It turns out that it is the design of the form at the D.M.V. In countries where the form is set as “opt-in” (check this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program) people do not check the box and as a consequence they do not become a part of the program. In countries where the form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate in the organ donation program) people also do not check the box and are automatically enrolled in the program. In both cases large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

Establishing a new default changes the game and puts the burden of decision and responsibility on the other party.  It says “this is how things are – and if you don’t like it then you’re going to have to do something to change it.”  It hopes for laziness and in the case of a challenge, ensures home field advantage.

Getting back to my battle with Orange – I argued my case with customer service rep after customer service rep.  At a certain point in the conversation I would be told, “listen, I can only inform you of the decision; I have no power to change it,” to which I would respond, “then why are we wasting each other’s time – please put me through to your boss or someone who does have the power to change it.  And after speaking to 3 customer service reps and a manager, I finally realized how to beat them.  I had to change the game back.

“I never signed any paper saying I work fork over ₪ 100”, I said.  “And by law, you have to keep your financial records for 7 years.  So either find the document you claim I signed saying I allow you to take ₪ 100 for the repair or give me back my money.”  “We will look into it,” I was assured.

I got a call the next day.  “We are sure you signed the document allowing us to take up to ₪ 100 for a repair, otherwise the Orange representative would not have taken your phone in to be fixed.  Nonetheless, we don’t want to go search through all of our archives, so we are going to return your money, but just this once.”

Game. Set. Match.

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