Be Your Own Choice Architect

If you’ve just read the title of this post you’re probably thinking ‘what’ ?

More specifically ‘what on  earth is a choice architect meant to be’ ?

Anyone who consciously designs an environment in which people make choices, is a ‘choice architect’. So, for example, a supermarket manager who decides where in the store, and on which shelves, various items are placed, is a ‘choice architect’. A restaurateur writing a menu, a software engineer deciding how to display search engine results, an interior designer presenting a portfolio of options for a new look living room, or an investment banker presenting a portfolio of stock options, are all ‘choice architects’.

All are presenting their customer with a choice – but deliberately setting out to influence that choice.

It should be obvious that the way in which options are presented, their context and their timing are all significant factors in determining the choices we all actually make. Virtually all our choices are influenced by others – the car we drive, what we’ve bought for tonight’s dinner, the make of our mobile phone or the next music album we listen to.

The thing is we all like to think we make well thought out, rational decisions when we decide between options – but the reality is that’s far from the truth. All of us are subject to a wide range of inherent bias, beliefs, judgements, preconceptions and preferences, of our own, which others can exploit to help direct our choices.

For example, most of us, most of the time will opt for the status-quo, and avoid change unless necessary (we find change stressful). Most of us, most of the time will tend to favour a scenario that confirms our own pre-existing beliefs, rather than one that challenges them (we like it when our beliefs are confirmed). Most of us, most of the time will choose familiarity over novelty (we stick with what we know). Most of us most of the time will support something presented by someone we like, and react negatively if presented by someone we don’t like, regardless of the actual merits either way (we’re influenced more by the messenger than the message).

Social scientists have been busy listing so many of these cognitive biases, that subconsciously affect the way we think and act, that well over a hundred are now recognised.

We’d all like to be better people – most of us have a mental image of how we’d like to be. The problem is at times these emotional biases get in the way of us doing what our more rational self would like – getting fitter and healthier, loosing weight, working more – or less, spending more time with family and friends, being more generous with our time or money, or clearing the accumulated clutter from our lives and homes more frequently.

We’re all only human, and it’s hard. We get tired, worn out, hungry, depressed, bored, upset, hurt and angry, and when we do we easily end up doing something our more rational self would rather we didn’t – whether it’s going to bed too late again, or something far worse.

If we’re smart we try to overcome these moments of weakness and exercise self-control. So we should, but we might do much better if we also simply accept we will have them sometimes, but try to put in place a framework that helps us make better decisions even when we are being ‘less than perfect’. ‘Nudging’ ourselves, so we have to rely a little less on our willpower alone.

If we know we always make bad food choices going shopping while we’re hungry, or when faced with having to cook tea from scratch after arriving home – then eating before shopping, shopping online, or having pre-prepared meals ready to simply heat up when we get in, will all help.

If we tend to make excuses not to go to the gym, perhaps arranging to go with a friend will introduce sufficient accountability to encourage us to go, as will leaving our gym bag somewhere visible, or consciously organising our diary and day so we have time to go.

If we’re prone to distraction by social media, random surfing or playing games when we’re meant to be working, perhaps we could install software that automatically disables Facebook and Solitaire etc during certain hours, or perhaps tracks the time we spend doing certain things to make us more aware of the time we’re wasting.

There are many ways we can structure the architecture of our own lives to help ourselves become more like the people we would like to be.

I’m a firm believer that if we’re more balanced and better organised in our own lives we’ll face fewer distractions and pressures, and generally make better choices as a result – both for our own good, and for the benefit of others.

If we are healthier, happier and more content with what we already have, we will perhaps consume a little less. If we waste less of our money on unnecessary, and ultimately unrewarding luxuries, seeking status or personal affirmation, then we will have more money available, perhaps being inclined to spend a little more of it for the benefit of others. If we can get more sleep, be more productive and procrastinate less, then perhaps we’ll have more time and more energy to help improve the lives of others . . . as well as our own.


Photo by Breahn via Flickr

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  1. Lorna Prescott says:

    I really like the links you make between being organised and making better (and more ethical choices). I am working towards implementing Getting Things Done, which you talked about in a post around the New Year. My downfall has been clearing the email inbox, but I’m determined to get there eventually. This post has been an additional nudge (!) thank you.

    • Thanks Lorna – I think this link is a real one. In surveys plenty of people express concern for the environment, global and local poverty etc – and when asked why they don’t do more, donate more etc, they often say they’re too busy, money is too tight etc.

      No obviously in some cases these are probably just excuses, but taking it at face value, if people had more time, and more available money then not only would they tend to be happier, but they’d probably do more for others – either in their local community or further afield.

      Linking Thoughts – Actions – Habits – Happiness – Environmental Justice – Social Justice is really what I’m trying to do on Next Starfish.

      If you’re interested in writing a guest post on your personal experience with GTD I’d love to publish it ;o)

  2. I came across Choice Architecture when I got into Nudge. Choice Architecture, as you say, appears in most commercial environments. From the baking bread smell in a supermarket and the location of the milk which are aimed at making you buy more, to the Buy One Get One Free to buy a product you wouldn’t normally look twice at. It’s everywhere and very clever people are behind it.

    By how much Choice Architecture appears in the public sector, organisations laregly concerned with public benefit? How many schools are designed or run to encourage an academic meritocracy? Is the benefit system designed to make people WANT to work more? Is the legal system designed to DETER crime to BE SEEN to deter crime?

    With Localism and de-regulation are we reducing the amount of positive Choice Architecture to the free market? Isn’t the free market aligned with economic growth? And by the very people who want us to buy more, eat more, consume more?

    • Lots of ideas and questions.

      It’s all very complicated isn’t it, and we mustn’t forget the public (including you and me) are a pretty diverse bunch – I don’t think shaping the landscape of choices and policy nudging is anything like a panacea . . . we still need clear and well formulated laws and enforcement, a fair and progressive tax system, social support systems and all the rest.

      But I think there’s a lot that can be done to diversify the ‘choice landscape’ – both by making alternatives more visible, highlighting the pros & cons of various choices, and perhaps most importantly general cultural influence . . . a lot of ideas and norms seep into our subconsciousness through TV, film, music, books, magazines, the web etc.

      What the implications might be for the free market is a whole other post !

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