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  • 1st Jul 2020

PRIDE reflection blog 🏳️‍🌈: How defaults impact the LGBTQIA+ community

There are few concepts as renowned or respected in behavioural science as the power of defaults. Defaults refer to the ‘status quo’ or ‘business-as-usual’ option that is pre-selected, by design or by accident, by the architect of choice. Default options can have a profound impact on human decision making. Consider your electricity provider, depending on where you live and whether or not you rent or own a property, it is likely that you were defaulted to a particular electricity provider such as E.ON or British Gas. However it is far less likely that you have ever switched to a different energy provider despite countless opportunities to compare prices and save. 

This is because defaults are easy. They remove inertia and uncertainty in human decision making – and allow the individual to autopilot to the path of least resistance. Choice architects are deftly aware of the power of these defaults and leverage them to achieve desired, often positive, behaviours. For example, the government’s automatic pension enrolment policy, which obliges private sector employers to enrol their employees into a workplace pension scheme, has led to a huge increase in the proportion of employees saving for retirement.

However, defaults can also endorse privilege and reinforce the status quo. Reflecting on pride month 2020, we want to consider how defaults can be harmful for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and implicitly perpetuate discrimination. We also want to suggest ways that we can reset defaults so that society is more inclusive and tolerant. 

Faltering defaults

One of the most prominent ways in which defaults can negatively impact the LGBTQIA+ community is in their implicit endorsement of a particular model of existing or set of beliefs

In the context of the LGBTQIA+ community, whenever a default is set for a heterosexual relationship or indeed for a gender binary, and does not contemplate the existence of anything different, this communicates a default sexual or gender identity. Heteronormative defaults, and thereby endorsements of heternormative identities (and implied marginalisation of other identities), pop up in many different ways. From a government form that includes only Male and Female gender options (the vast majority of US state motor vehicle bureaus do not allow for nonbinary genders to be selected on licenses), to social interactions with mortgage providers, estate agents, insurers etc. who assume a particular gender on the part of your partner. 

Consider a bog-standard sexual health screening within the NHS healthcare system – a system with which the community reports higher levels of dissatisfaction than heterosexual and cisgender individuals . Here a health professional may ask questions of or field diagnoses to a lesbian that assumes heterosexuality on the part of the individual. E.g. ‘do you use condoms during sexual intercourse?’. This question employs a heterosexual default that implies endorsement of a heteronormative model by the doctor or nurse, the wider healthcare system and ultimately society itself. To the LGBTQIA+ individual they create ‘otherness’ by implying that their sexual identity deviates from the ‘norm’. 

Another example of the effects of a dangerous default in the healthcare system is one that impacts the trans community. Transgender people report suffer a wide range of barriers when accessing health care services. For instance, in a national LGBT survey conducted by the Government Equalities Office,  21% of trans participants reported that their specific needs had been ignored or not taken into account within the healthcare system, 18% avoided treatment for fear of a negative reaction to their sexual identity, and 7% reported having to change their GP due to inappropriate care.

In the UK, individuals are often invited for vital health screenings such as breast cancer checks and cervical smears based on their birth sex. However, if they re-register their sex with their GP based on the gender they identify with, they may not be contacted for appropriate, routine health screenings thereby putting them at greater risk of health complications. For example, an individual who identifies as male, but who was born female (i.e. a transgender man), may not be invited for breast cancer screenings or cervical smears despite the fact that they would still biologically be at risk of these diseases. The reason cited for this lack of communication is often fear of insulting the individual at hand, however communications could be tailored to transgender men and women to tackle these sensitivities while also ensuring they receive appropriate medical care. Without such tailored content, these defaults will continue to account for at least some of the health inequalities that plague the LGBTQIA+ community. 

The impact of dangerous defaults

So what are the consequences of these defaults? Going against a default requires various possible costs both socially and psychologically. 

Psychological costs of going against society’s defaults 

Every fight I have won has taken a chunk out of me

– Munroe Bergdorf 

Whether it’s deciding when and how to come out, keeping one’s identity a secret, or dealing with judgement and abuse, navigating a society in which “straight” and “cis-gender” are defaults takes a psychological toll. A recent study shows that, when people were asked to conceal harmless information during a conversation, they subsequently performed worse on a mental task than people who could speak freely – in other words, merely holding back information exerts a psychological cost. For many people who identify as LGBTQIA+, the straight-and-cis default of society places them in a position where they constantly have to choose between the psychological cost of concealing their identity, or the potentially much greater threat of revealing it e.g. 19% of LGBT people aren’t out to any healthcare professional about their sexual orientation and 14% have avoided treatment for fear of discrimination because they’re LGBT. This compounds mental health issues for a community that is already disproportionately affected by psychological difficulties due to discrimination and inequalities in quality of life.  

Social costs 

Defaults may harm people and it is likely to be marginalized groups they harm through psychological processes. This can have significant impacts for social integration, economic behaviour as well as individual wellbeing.

Going against the default requires effort because it involves extra friction cost. Research shows that people are less likely to complete a task if there are additional friction costs involved – some groups were 8% less likely to attend university when they had to complete empty rather than pre-filled application forms. Completing a form in a medical check without an inclusive default will involve extra friction cost for LGBTQIA+ people because if it asks them to choose an option other than the default this will make a process harder and therefore can create further health inequality because it will cause more of those people to limit their engagement with healthcare.

If defaults fail to contemplate the existence of a wide variety of identities – including identities held by people in the LGBTQ+ community – then these people are continually being told that their identity doesn’t matter or isn’t valid. This process could become a harmful cycle both to the individual and to society. It may be effortful and sometimes stressful for people to just be themselves even in supposedly neutral situations and it may have real health and economic impacts.

Making defaults more inclusive

. We encourage the following actions to address problematic defaults:

  • Assess: Organisations should actively consider the defaults they are setting explicitly or implicitly and aim to make them as inclusive as possible. For example, job applications could include a non-binary option for gender, or specify whether the question refers to gender identity or sex at birth.  
  • Include: Involve diverse groups in designing forms and processes that will be rolled out across large numbers of people and make sure their recommendations are implemented to ensure default language and options are as inclusive as possible. User journeys should always reflect the range of experiences that we see in the population – LGBTQIA+ people included.
  • Enact: Actively set inclusive defaults e.g. encourage people to note their pronouns in email signatures/start of meetings.

Whilst violence remains against LGBTQIA+ people the most important LGBTQIA+ issues globally aren’t about defaults. However, as a society we should consider the defaults we are communicating and ensure they are as inclusive as possible lest we compound the suffering of already marginalised groups.


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