Choice Architecture

Origins & Ideas IconMartin Rowe

We’ve met this idea already in the vegan Prius that Toyota produced in 2004. The architecture of choice is fundamental to the society in which we live. The so-called “free” market is rarely free, since the public sector and private industry work together to craft laws and establish outcomes that privilege access to certain goods and services and restrict access to others. Marketing and public relations influence our attitudes toward a vast array of products and lifestyles; our social networks often determine whose company we keep, the attitudes we hold, and how in general we see ourselves in the world. To that extent, freedom of choice is ultimately a matter of determining which appetites and inclinations are reinforced through which products, groups, or services. Way beyond the determination of which products are in which location in which supermarkets, choices are being made on behalf of us by others, and these choices then shape the system by which other choices come into being and are resolved.

In recent years, social theorist Cass Sunstein and others have formulated the idea that people, without feeling coerced or overly regulated, can be “nudged” by an architecture of choice into making decisions that are in their long-term interests. So, for instance, fresh fruit and vegetables can be placed at the front of a supermarket and the snacks and meat at the back, so that people will be more likely to buy the healthier products because they see them first. Of course, the theory and practice of framing choice in a capitalist, consumerist economy involves more complicated and nuanced aspects of social change than just where you put the food in the supermarket, but “architecture of choice” is a useful initial catch-all phrase by which to encompass this pervasive method of changing and reinforcing certain behaviors.

Some critics of the “nudge” theory have observed that it smacks of paternalism and elitism—who decides, for instance, what is worth nudging and to whom? They note that the technocrats and experts who’d be expected to do the nudging might get it wrong; after all, they themselves may have been influenced to come to their decisions not through objective analysis but through the exertion of pressure, or a bribe, or a prejudice regarding the supposedly unhealthful, self-destructive, or ill-informed practices of the supposedly poor, ignorant, or otherwise benighted.

We have plenty of reasons, therefore, to be skeptical about the absolute utility of choice architecture, but it does offer a means of thinking about how we go about making decisions and encouraging us to think about how Adam Smith’s invisible hand might meet the manipulations of marketers, subsidies, and a host of other imbalances in the marketplace.