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.

Isn’t [——] More Important?

Origins IconMartin Rowe

We vegans aren’t alone in believing our issue to be the most urgent, necessary, and encompassing facing the planet. We’re also no more capable than others of genuinely listening to other people when they make the case for the urgency, necessity, and fundamental nature of their issue. It’s likely that, throughout this project, many observers and critics will believe they’ve got to the heart of the issue and located the key sticking point (GMOs, corporate power, capitalism, failure of governance, human overpopulation) or the change agent, and want to write complaints that begin, “The real problem/solution is. . . .”

My response to this is twofold. If you are one of those people, I, first, want to acknowledge the passion and knowledge you bring, but I’d like you to wait, deliberate, reflect, and generally allow the information and/or case as outlined in the Project to unfold. I don’t think there is one solution per se; it might, indeed, be the case that veganism (whatever that might look like) is neither a nor the “solution,” because there may not be “solutions” or the problems themselves will be unresolvable with the methodologies, technologies, or social and political structures we currently operate under.

You may remain unconvinced or frustrated, but it’s my belief that one of the ways that social change comes about is through paying attention to others’ concerns and arguments and either seeking common ground or adapting an argument to reflect the deeper concerns that we now recognize because we’ve genuinely heard the other person and/or point of view—and they feel heard in return. It’s not that I want to persuade you that veganism is the answer to everything; it’s that I want to allow veganism to think through difficult issues without foreshortening the process.

The second way of incorporating and honoring such responses is to bring them into the project itself. We’re going to do this through five theories of social change/organization. (The number and emphasis of these may change throughout the Project.) The next five blogs will be taken up with these five social-change orientations. The first is Choice Architecture.

Genesis 1: Toyota’s Vegan Prius

Origins IconMartin Rowe

In 2004, Toyota produced a “vegan hybrid Prius”: i.e. one without leather seats or furnishings. On the one hand, this was an extreme measure, since, according to a 2016 poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, vegans currently constitute about half of the 3.2 percent of Americans who call themselves vegetarians. (That number would likely have been lower—although not, instructively, by much—thirteen years ago.) On the other hand, as Sharon Bernstein of the Los Angeles Times reported (September 5, 2004) on Toyota’s decision, “Pleasing vegans, the theory goes, is key to reaching a wider group of consumers—affluent shoppers who worry about the environment and who are willing to pay extra for food, clothing and even automobiles, if they are made in ways that do less harm to the planet.”

In reporting the same story, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing for the automobile website “‘As a marketer you want to identify with the passionate group. . . . The middle of the bull’s-eye is where you want to focus your marketing, and then you want to expand your message around that. If you draw these concentric circles, the middle of the bull’s-eye right now is the vegan.’” Assuming that Bob Kurilko is correct, then veganism—for all its minuscule presence in the culture at large—is a central identity marker and this story presents an interesting case study in how and why apparently peripheral ideas move to the heart of social change.

When I read about Toyota’s decision, I was struck by the logical illogicality of it. By simply making veganism the default option, and forcing all other consumers to make an active decision to, in this case, purchase a leather interior, Toyota (to my mind, at least) was in effect asking industry and society to question what it considered normative. Nobody’s rights were being infringed or choices denied. Instead, Toyota was, in effect, banking on the great majority of their customers (whom one would assume weren’t vegan) not caring enough to choose to purchase a leather interior. Simultaneously, the company was encouraging others who might not be vegan but liked a company that promoted an identity affiliated with environmental awareness, care for animals, and a commitment to values to buy the Prius.

Now, I wasn’t immune to cynicism in 2004: it’s great marketing to get folks to pay more for a product by trumpeting exclusivity and conscientiousness. As we saw with the scandal over Volkswagen’s rigging of its tests for its “green” diesel vehicles, the trumpeting of virtue can be a cover for corporate greenwashing. It’s entirely possible that some parts of the car weren’t vegan: the rubber tires, for instance, probably contained stearic acid, the asphalt those vegan Priuses drove on almost certainly had trace elements of glycerin, and the bugs splattered on the windshield or small mammals under the carriage wouldn’t have particularly cared whether they were killed or run over by a vegan or non-vegan Prius. That’s no doubt true of the 2016 vegan version as well. But, leaving aside the fact that most vegans would admit that it’s impossible to survive without negatively impacting animals in some way or because we live in an imperfect world, I didn’t believe then—and don’t now—that the vegan Prius was merely a slick marketing ploy directed at credulous consumers with an overly inflated sense of their own worthiness.

But even if it was mainly or solely a marketing ploy, my interest in the Prius wasn’t then—and isn’t now—as a car or a consumer item. (I have never owned a car.) As I read the story back in 2004, I began to wonder what it would be like if “the vegan option” was the default across every sector of society. What if products containing animals weren’t on the shelves at supermarkets but kept in a storage room around the back? What if you had to ask a manufacturer for a fur-lined collar on your jacket? What if we took all those externalized costs to human health, the environment, and animal welfare associated with industrialized animal agriculture and placed them on the meat and dairy products that people consume and then made those prices visibly comparable and contrasted with in restaurants and in supermarkets? How much more money would people be willing to pay? And how much effort would we wish to expend to acquire those products?

A tax, such as on cigarettes or plastic bags, would no doubt depress demand. Those who’d fight an economy-wide “meat and dairy tax” would likewise employ the same arguments the tobacco, plastics, and soda manufacturers made against policy-makers who wanted to restrict the use of their harmful products: that the science was ambiguous and that a tax would be anti-choice and regressive—hurting the poor the most. In the case of meat and dairy, critics would claim it would negatively affect farmers, American exports, and the restaurant and food business as a whole—and the resistance would be intense. However, a tax against meat is no longer beyond the realms of possibility.

Even more interesting to me than the public policy dimension of Toyota’s decision, however, or the uses of choice architecture to bring about change, was that it suggested that veganism could be a useful device to make the unthinkable, thinkable. And it was that notion—of veganism as being good to think with—that stimulated me to conceive of the Vegan America Project. I’ll discuss more about veganism being good to think with in a later blog. In the next one, I talk about another genesis for the Project.