Relativity and Defaults

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Our Course on Relativity and Defaults: Co-Taught by Sophia, Nicole, Billy, and Dan

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Relativity and Defaults website

Check out our website and join us, as we explore relativity and defaults in our daily lives through an intro video of a day in a Duke student’s point of view, a short ‘highlight’ reel of our interview, and a case study of defaults by looking at organ donations.



A topic studied by social scientists is how people value things in relative terms rather than absolute terms. How much are you willing to pay for a cup of coffee? How do you decide how much an iPhone is worth? What factors change our valuations? In literature, we can also recognize these kinds of relative evaluations in which protagonists make their decisions dependent on others. A related topic we might also consider in this unit is the concept of “defaults”: how marketers learn quickly that consumers tend to make choices based on the path of least resistance. For example, consider organ donations: if people are asked to opt-in (“sign if you want to participate”) to be an organ donor, it results in low participation. However, if they are asked to opt out (“sign if you don’t want to participate), it ensures a larger percentage of potential organ donors. This topic raises issues about how difficult it is for us and literary characters to deviate from the status quo.

The readings are meant to provide a better understanding of the material. We believe that having a context through social science research and classic works of literature will enhance the students’ grasp on this complex topic. Read more. 

Social Science

Everything is relative, and that’s the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels. (Dan Ariely)​


The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. (Jonathan Haidt)


Join us as we walk through a narrated day of a Duke student as he experiences relativity and defaults in everyday life. As this student goes through his day, Dr. Ariely conveniently explains what we are dealing with.

As you watch, think of the relativity and defaults in your life. We may think we are in control of what we decide, but many of our day to day activities are pre-determined by whoever made an action a default for us.

A short portion of the full interview, this video gives a glimpse of what relativity and defaults are from Dr. Davidson and Dr. Ariely. With examples of literature, voting, and education, we can learn from these distinguished scholars how to realize the relativity and defaults in our lives and if there is anything we can really do about it.

To watch the full interview, click here.

Do we independently decide whether or not to be organ donors? In this case study video we will ask more about the factors that weight into what Professor Ariely calls irrational psychological behavior and what Professor Cathy Davidson cites are the narratives that also impact human behavior. Organ donation has a variety of implications for behavior in society. Could relatively evaluating our Facebook friend’s donor status’s outweigh the default opt-in framework that currently exists in the United States? The United States contrasts with other country’s opt-out policy that assumes you are an organ donor. This list includes Spain and Singapore that prioritizes organ donors who are also on an organ waiting list. Back in the US every state varies on how a person indicates they are a donor. This video also asks if there are further defaults within state policies working within this national default framework.

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