We all are. On a macro level, choice architecture manipulates our decision-making based on how choices are presented. On a micro level, we take part in managing our own choices – big ones, little ones, daily.

The term was coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and fleshed out in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. There are many ways to design choices and lots of examples around us:

  • To reduce pedestrian accidents, cities have installed “Push button, wait for signal” boxes at major intersections. They don’t change the timing of the light; instead, they give the pedestrian a sense of self-control which encourages him to wait for the green light.
  • Today, most employers automatically enroll their employees in their company retirement plan. Because opting out takes time and energy, participation has increased dramatically.
  • Netflix helps us choose from thousands of movies by structuring our choices. We can choose by actor, director, genre, etc. and then, if we rate the movies we’ve watched, we’ll get recommendations for others we might enjoy, a process called “collaborative filtering”.

I see choice architecture in my life and work:

  • We toured the Environment and Natural Resources Building on the UA campus last weekend. It’s designed with a canyon-like open space and sweeping stairs scaling the two building halves. The prominent stairs in addition to tucking the elevator discretely in a corner encourage people to walk not ride.
  • We use choice architecture when grocery shopping, i.e. we don’t buy certain food items…like the Belgian Chocolate Pudding from Trader Joe’s. We know it won’t last a day, if that. Right, Dave?
  • When visiting Scotland this June, we noticed that street crossings were marked in bold letters with “Look Right!” Most of their tourists aren’t used to cars driving in the left lane; this warning made for a safer choice.
  • Ah, credit cards! They make spending money so easy that some people choose to freeze them in a block of ice. The result? The impulse to buy something has, hopefully, waned by the time the card thaws out.
  • And, finally, budgets are no more than choice architecture for spending and saving. The extreme example of choice architecture for managing spending is the envelope system. Put your grocery money for the month in an envelope – when the envelope’s empty, start eating out of your frig, pantry or friend’s house! There is an app version of envelopes, Proactive Budget.

Lastly, a fun anecdote about a “nudge” we have all used and appreciated: When Richard Thaler was working on Nudge, he emailed Google’s chief economist intending to attach a draft of the introduction. The reply email noted that he’d forgotten to attach the draft and that, by the way, Google was experimenting with a new feature that would remind the sender to attach the draft if the word “attachment” was used in the body of the message.

I’d love to hear some of your examples of choice architecture…