The Brave New World of Choice Architects

Have you ever thought about how many decision points cross your path on a given day? Turn on the TV and you’ll find a mind-numbing panoply of channels with live and streaming viewing options. A quick glance at your Smartphone reveals dozens of news and social media feeds vying for your attention. A simple trip to the grocery store presents tens of thousands of products from which to choose. We may relish our freedom of choice, but our lives would come to a grinding halt if we stopped to consider all available options!

Enter the choice architect. Folks in this nascent profession organize the context in which we make decisions in such a way that it alters our behavior in predictable ways without forbidding any options or significantly changing our economic incentives. For example:

  • A cafeteria’s layout and tray size determine in large part the type and quantity of food patrons choose to consume.
  • The default option on retirement plan enrollment impacts the number of employees who avail themselves of this opportunity. Those who must consciously opt out of the program tend to save more than those who must consciously opt in.
  • Sweden’s Vision Zero and the Netherlands Sustainable Safety provide examples of innovative street design that cause drivers and pedestrians to make better choices at troublesome intersections, thereby saving lives.

Drs. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein provide a window into this fascinating subject matter in NUDGE: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. They begin by recounting a host of shortcuts we use when making decisions:

  • We use rules of thumb to avoid having to stop and think deeply about what we are doing or deciding.
  • Starting points (a.k.a. anchors) exert a strong influence on our decision process. If we believe a product should cost X, we’ll be resistant to any upward pressure on pricing. But if we’re introduced to a premium version of the product, we’ll be prone to action when given the option to purchase a less expensive one.
  • We assess the likelihood of risk by how readily an example comes to mind (a.k.a. availability), not by its actual mathematical probability. For example, vending machines kill many more people than sharks, but the publicity surrounding shark attacks makes us fear them more.
  • We render judgments based on stereotypes… even when our social consciousness admonishes not to.
  • We tend toward optimism and overconfidence when assessing our ability to complete a project in a given time frame (a.k.a., “above average” effect).
  • We have loss aversion – i.e., our pain at losing is twice the amplitude of our joy at winning.
  • We tend to stick with our current situation rather than make changes (a.k.a. the “status quo” effect)… which is what makes default settings so powerful.
  • Framing influences thought processes. For example, we feel much better about a surgical procedure that carries a 90% success rate over one associated with a 10% failure rate, even though the two metrics are equivalent.
  • We make mindless choices based on what is in front of us – e.g., shoveling junk food into our mouths on autopilot just because it’s there.
  • We follow the herd. Social influence is powerful! Moreover, groups tend to stick with established protocols even as new conditions and needs arise.
  • Priming improves the ease with which certain information comes to mind. It can also motivate us to action. It can take the form of a suggestion, sensory input (e.g., a visual cue), or an intention. It can also be associated with removing barriers and making something really easy to do.

All of the foregoing gained footholds across thousands of years as human beings figured out what they needed to survive. The more complex our lives, the more we look for ways of lowering our cognitive load. A benevolent choice architect can make our lives easier. The authors argue that this discipline is especially useful for decisions that are difficult and rare, for which feedback is absent or delayed, and for which decision makers have difficulty translating the options into terms they understand.

So, what are the characteristics of benevolent choice architects? They make it easy for folks to choose options that is most likely to result in the choosers’ highest good while still providing the means to explore alternate paths. These choices may be guided by filters that narrow the playing field. They are attentive to default settings – e.g., one-time purchase versus auto-renewals, regular versus custom installation. And they present signals and/or incentives that are consistent with the desired actions.

Of course, “bad actors” could avail themselves of the same behavioral science research to achieve their own aims. The authors argue for developing rules to control fraud and abuse and elevate transparency and neutrality.

We may bristle at the thought of choice architects controlling our lives, but we are definitely subject to their influence. “Nudges” are everywhere, even if we do not see them. A such, it behooves us to align ourselves with reputable individuals and organizations and trust that their gentle nudges steer us in the right direction. A few practical suggestions:

  • Bolster your savings through payroll deductions, especially if the company offers to match your funds!
  • Improve your health by hanging out with healthy people. You’ll eat better quality food and exercise more.
  • Focus on news outlets that dedicate “air time” to interesting and/or inspirational stories; take a break from the anxiety-inducing headlines. Don’t make the latter easy to access or grab your attention.