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Free to Choose, Sort of: The Bingo Edition
How Other People Design Your Decisions. Reviewing ‘The Elements of Choice’ by Eric J. Johnson
I didn’t design the house I live in. But its design governs my choices on a daily basis. How I use the space is shaped to a substantial degree by the prior decisions of the architect. I’ve got latitude, of course; I could always move the kitchen into my closet and sleep in the attic. But regardless of what I do, I live in response to the options presented by somebody else.
And that’s true for every other set of choices I experience.
The road that runs past my house goes one way and not others. Enchiladas, pizza, and sushi are off the menu when I order Greek. Likewise, the websites I visit encourage me to click here, not there. Amazon may be “the everything store,” but how it presents the all those things is carefully crafted and customized to drive my buying behavior in particular directions.
Behavioral economists use the label choice architecture to describe this reality. The term goes back to a hugely influential 2008 book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge, and theorists and practitioners have been teasing out its implications and expanding its applications ever since—chief among them Columbia University professor Eric J. Johnson.
The problem, according to Johnson, is that we’re subject to, and users of, forces we don’t fully understand. “Most choice architecture works without the knowledge of the decision maker,” he says. And yet we are all choice architects, “posing choices to our friends, colleagues, and families.”
Of course, problems also present opportunities. Johnson’s book, The Elements of Choice, attempts to surface these dynamics so we can understand them more fully—not only only on the receiving end, but also as people who regularly design choices for others.
Choice Architecture Bingo
Johnson presents several elements of choice, describes how they work, and how they influence our decisions. I present several of them below with a challenge: Keep this list in mind as you move through the day. Every time you notice one or more of these elements operating in a conversation, on a website, at a retailer, wherever, take note on your mental bingo card.
Assembled preference. How do know what you want, like, or fancy? Our preferences are conditioned by our contexts. Decision designers know this and use our brain’s natural tendency to highlight some ideas when prompted (accessibility) while backgrounding others (inhibition).
Options. Our choices are affected by the range and sort of options presented. Examples might include a dinner menu, the option packages on a new car, or available inventory on a shelf. What you will choose is affected by what you can choose.
Order. The order in which options are arranged and presented also has an effect. Sometimes we favor what’s first on on a list (an effect called primacy). Other times we stick with whatever came last (recency). Both involve tics in our memory and attention.
Attributes. Description plays a big part in how we think of the options before us. The features and qualities of the options influences our decisions, as do which attributes are highlighted and which hidden.
Defaults. Whether it’s a negative option or a prechecked selection box, sometimes the decision is already made. The choice is presented as a default. As expedience-seeking creatures, we often find it easier to go with whatever’s recommended.
Endorsement. That’s doubly so if we trust the recommender. It’s easy to pick an endorsed option—unless we don’t trust the recommender, in which case we might go the exact opposite direction. You can see this play out in political punditry every day.
Endowment. People tend to value what they possess. Defaults can work by providing users with a sense of already having something. Let’s imagine, for instance, a higher price option that saves money in the long run; people tend to stick with that option if it’s presented as the default instead of an upgrade.
How One Influences the Other
Most of these elements work in relationship. So as you’re tallying up your bingo card, keep in mind how they interact in the decisions you make.
One example Johnson mentions is fluency vs. accuracy. Fluency deals with our sense of something coming easily to us. Having too many options disrupts fluency. Reading that arms-length list of features is a chore. But not having enough information might lead to an inaccurate decision. This tension bears directly upon how many options are provided, along with their order and attributes.
Of course, if people feel overwhelmed by the range of options, one solution is to provide them with a default. Defaults are fluent. If the source is trusted, it’s an easy choice. Then again, it might go the opposite way if they source is mistrusted.
The topic of trust underscores what might already be obvious: There’s tremendous power in choice architecture, and some people might not always use their power for good. There’s a fine line at times between designing choices and manipulating choosers. Becoming aware of how choice architecture works can make us better choosers and better able to spot manipulation.
But that’s only one side of the equation. The architect who designed my house has an effect on how I inhabit my home. But I’m busy architecting choices all day at both home and work: in the conversations I have, my interactions with my wife and kids, the meetings I participate in, the products I create and sell, and more.
“It suggests one ultimate observation on how to use choice architecture, a paraphrase of the golden rule,” says Johnson: “Design for others as you would like them to design for you.”
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