The way choices are presented to us affects our decisions. The mere arrangement of options influences what options we select and what we omit. However sure we are of our free will, our whims and fancies are subject to the manner choices are offered to us.
I’ll prove it to you with an example.
Say you need to buy a loaf of bread from the local grocery store. You enter and pick out your preferred loaf. You even go as far as to take a loaf right at the back of the shelf with a later expiration date. You think you have outsmarted the store clerks by choosing a loaf that will last longer with you. Smiling, you head over to the billing counter.
Over there, you see some items stacked up right next to the cashier. It could be a couple of sticks of gum, packs of batteries, or several bars of chocolate. You think it would be nice if you had a piece of gum to chew on your ride back home, so you add one to your cart.
And within this short timespan, you’ve fallen prey to choice architecture.
Choice architecture involves the decisions that go into how choices are presented to a consumer. It is the thinking behind the design, the logic behind the setup, the rationale behind the slogans.
The supermarket is a place where one can easily observe choice architecture at play. You are being primed with each step in the store, with unconscious cues triggering you to buy more. The exact placement of products is premeditated to make the most sales. The best-selling goods are placed at eye level, while the wholesale items are right at the bottom of the shelves. Store isles will hold special “seasonal merchandise”, often lit with special lights.
We are all in search of thrifty deals while shopping. Thus we never think twice when offered a BOGO deal (Buy one, get one). We think we’re being clever by saving money with such pitches. And we’re dealt the final blow with the word “FREE”.
Free is arguably one of the most powerful words in the English lexicon. One look, and we are enamoured. We throw our inhibitions to the wind. But nothing is truly free in life. More often than not, the price of the first item is inflated to partially cover that of the second. Such deals make you spend more money than you previously intended. (Watch this video)
This might be a bitter pill to swallow, but you are not alone. Lives all around the planet are swayed by choice architecture. In spite of learning this, I find it hard to resist that stick of gum or bar of chocolate. I tightly clench my teeth when I see a BOGO item. I walk past store isles, determined not to look left and right. I sometimes even use my hand to prevent side glances or just close my eyes altogether!
Now previously, I rejected this claim. I like to think of myself as someone impervious to external provocation. But as I introspected, I realised how naive this thought was. I fall prey to this very often, sometimes daily. It permeates many aspects of our life, from social media to grocery shopping.
I first came across the concept of choice architecture while listening to the podcast “Hidden Brain“. The episode was titled “Choose Carefully“, where the host Shankar Vedantam interacted with psychologist Eric Johnson. I was in a car listening to the interview when I had this realisation. My eyes widened as the discussion went on, my nose inches from my astonished reflection in the car window.
Netflix has mastered the art of choice architecture. This might puzzle you. Where have they employed this concept, you might wonder?
Next time you’re cosying up for a movie, try this. Select your film of choice, and just place the selector on it. After a few seconds, Netflix starts playing a small preview to show you glimpses of the movie.
Intrigued, you click once, and the option opens up. You can read the synopsis while the movie starts in the background. You watch the beginnings of the film on your right, and before long, the options fade into the screen, and you smoothly transition into the movie.
But that’s not all. They have also understood how to make you binge-watch your favourite shows. At the end of an episode, a button taking you to the next one immediately pops up, with a short timer. Once the timer runs out, it automatically takes you to the next episode. And once that begins, you’re likely to continue watching.
Netflix streamlines the process to make it as frictionless as possible. They remove features that make choosing more tedious(by automatically loading the next episode in a show).
It is the subtlety with which Netflix conditions its viewers that amazes me. When I first noticed this, I was shocked. I showed my friends, and they too were stupefied. It was happening, quite literally, in front of our eyes, but we were blind nonetheless.
One idea that Eric Johnson brings up is that when the right options are made complex to choose, people often don’t make that choice. I like to think of choosing as a highway, and when you make a choice harder, you add a toll to that highway. And the more tolls, the less likely you’ll go down that path.
Away from writing, author James Clear also talks about a version of this idea in his book, “Atomic Habits“, the definitive book on habit forming. He states that your immediate environment plays a significant role in habit forming/breaking.
If you want to form a habit, like regularly playing the guitar, you need to calibrate your environment to make that process as seamless as possible. That could include simply keeping your guitar in a visually accessible place, like near your bed, instead of inside a cupboard.
Conversely, you must increase the friction if you wish to break a bad habit. For example, if you want to reduce your Instagram consumption, set a timer on the app. That way, once your time is up, you will need to disable your timer if you want to continue browsing through Instagram, which is tedious.
On the topic of social media, choice architecture is employed all the time to keep the user’s attention. When you want to refresh your feed, you scroll down until the loading icon appears. This feature was adapted from slot-machine technology, where one frequently pulls down the handle expecting to hit the jackpot.
The like button gave users a quantifiable metric to gauge “how well” a [post was received. Each like received gives a little dopamine hit, keeping people longing for more. But this resulted in massive bouts of depression when everyone began to compare their “likability” to others. (This is explained in this video).
My relationship with social media was a bumpy one. I got onto Instagram at the young age of 13 and was soon swept up by the app, sometimes spending 2 hours a day mindlessly scrolling.
After a point, I knew I had to delete my account. But when I tried, I learned I had to undergo this cumbersome procedure. I had to sign in on their website, tick multiple boxes and needless formalities. It was even worse with my Facebook account when I had to wait for a 30-day period for my account to be entirely deleted.
With all their tech, such a procedure should be a seamless one. But it was deliberately made challenging, using choice architecture. At each stage, there was always the option to “temporarily disable” my account. They do everything in their power to keep you from leaving the platform.
In the podcast, they touch upon some political scenarios where this has played out. In the 2000 US Presidential Election between Al Gore and George W Bush, the vote tallies in Florida were separated by a mere 500 votes. During this famously tight election, social scientists speculated that the placement of names on the ballot influenced voters’ choices.
Under Florida law, the name of the candidate from the Governor’s party gets listed first on the ballot during the general election. The Governor at the time was Jeb Bush, George W Bush’s brother. In other states, the order of names is randomised in each county. This ensures that undecided voters are not prompted to choose any particular party. Social Scientists, in hindsight, say that if such randomisation took place in Florida, Al Gore would’ve been president.
From SEO to online commerce to restaurant menus, choice architecture affects us in many ways. Recognising this will help us make better decisions in life.
Bill Gates once said he would hire a lazy person for a job because that person would have the easiest way to perform that task. There is an element of choice architecture to this. The lazy person would think about how choices are presented to him and thus complete the assignment accordingly.
So how does one think about choice architecture going forward? When presenting choices to someone, think of the analogy of bridges and toll gates. The more toll gates on the gate, the less likely one would go on it. So try posing as little hindrances to the person you are trying to convince.
When choosing, reflect on what choices you are making because of convenience. Do you take the elevator in hotels merely because it’s the first thing you see when you enter? Do you open social media excessively, purely because it’s the first app you see when you turn your phone on? Pondering over these questions and having more conversations will significantly benefit all.
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