Choice Architects

Choice Architects February 19, 2010

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness , by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein is about choice architecture: “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions . . . . If you design the ballot voters use to choose candidates, you are a choice architect.  If you are a doctor and must describe the alternative treatments available to a patient, you are a choice architect.  If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company health care plan, you are a choice architect.  If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect.”  If you work at a cafeteria or retail store, your choice architecture is reflected in the arrangement of the goods you want to sell.

One basic principle of choice architecture is that “there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ design,” which can be translated as “everything matters.”  Thaler and Sustein cite an example from men’s rooms at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam: “There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal.  It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased.”  ”If a man sees a fly, he aims at it,” says Aad Kieboom (real name!), the economist who designed the Schiphol expansion.  It works: the “etchings reduce spillage by 80 percent.”

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