Selfish Choice Architects

“So lets go on record,” write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, “as saying that choice architects in all walks of life have incentives to nudge people in directions that benefit the architects (or their employers) rather than the users.”

 

Choice architects are those who design, organize, or provide decision situations to individuals. Whether it is the person who determines the order for food on the buffet line, the human resources manager responsible for selecting health insurance plans for the company, or a bureaucrat who designs an enrollment form, anyone who influences a situation where a person makes a decision or a choice is architecting that choice. Their decisions will influence the way that people understand their choice and the choices that they actually make.

 

As the quote above notes, there can always be pressure for a choice architect to design the decision space in a way that advances their own desires or needs as opposed to advancing the best interest of the individual making a given choice. Grocery stores adjust their layouts with the hopes that displays, sales, or conveniently located candy will get customers to purchase things they otherwise wouldn’t purchase. A company could skimp on health benefits and present confusing plans to employees with hurdles preventing them from utilizing their benefits, saving the company money while still appearing to have generous benefits. A public agency could design a program that meets a political objective and makes the agency head look good, even if it gives up actual effectiveness in the process and doesn’t serve citizens well.

 

Nudges are useful, but they have the capacity to be nefarious. A buffet manager might want patrons to fill up on cheap salad, eating less steak, meaning that the buffet does better on the margins. Placing multiple cheap salads at the front of the line, and not allowing people to jump right to steak, is a way to nudge people to eating cheaper food. Sunstein and Thaler acknowledge the dark side of nudges in their book, and encourage anyone who is a choice architect to strive to avoid the dark side of nudges. Doing so, they warn, risks leading to cynicism and in the long run is likely to create problems when employee, customer, or citizen trust and buy in is needed.

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