The last several years has seen the rise of social media influencers across the globe. Regular people have been able to amass large numbers of followers on social media, gaining status, earning contracts with brands and advertisers, and of course, influencing people. Their influence is often times out in the open, like when they endorse a brand or product, but is often hidden, in messages about how life should be, about how one should look, and about the things that people should focus on in life. These hidden and secondary influences may also be intentional, but may also be subconscious, and ultimately, they are unavoidable. To go even deeper, these types of influences are not just limited to bona fide social media influencers, they are unavoidable aspects of all our lives and actions.
Whether we want to or not, we influence people’s choices. Some of us are in spaces where we are explicitly asked and expected to influence people’s choices, but many of us are not. Nevertheless, our conversations, decisions, and actions can still influence how people make choices. If we deliberately shape choice environments via a position of authority, we are a choice architect. Human resource managers, club leaders, and parents are all choice architects, with the direct mandate to shape the choices of employees, club members, and children respectively. Nevertheless, fellow employees, adjacent club members, and other kids also influence the decision spaces that choice architects create, regardless as to whether they ever intended to.
Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler consider the implications of unavoidable influence in their book Nudge. The authors believe that choice architects have the responsibility to nudge individuals toward specific decisions and choices that the individuals themselves would deem to be the best outcome. That responsibility, according to Sunstein and Thaler cannot be shirked, because influence cannot be avoided. “It is not possible to avoid choice architecture, and in that sense it is not possible to avoid influencing people.”
Sunstein and Thaler are specifically writing about the impossibility of choice architects to try not to influence people. Most of this post has been about inadvertent influence from people who are not trying to influence others. The two ideas are separate, but important to directly connect and discuss. Choice architects still influence people and their decisions even if they try to pull back completely. Sunstein and Thaler would argue that in doing so they often end up creating decision situations where people make worse choices than if the choice architect had deliberately intervened in an attempt to help people make a better choice. One reason for this is that unintentional influence will play a greater role in the absence of choice architects actively trying to improve people’s decision-making. Imagine that your HR representative had gone through the effort of trying to map out possible health benefits scenarios for employees based on age, family dynamics, and potential health concerns. The way that employees select health insurance plans could be shaped by these mapping scenarios, deliberately trying to help people make better choices. Or, the rep could decide not to try to influence decisions and step back. By doing so, employees might hear from colleagues about a great option that worked for someone else, and select that option even if it doesn’t fit their family and health needs. Other employees may not have been encouraging everyone to select an option, but they still have the ability to indirectly and unintentionally influence the choices of others, potentially for the worse. The choice architect who tried not to influence the decision created a situation where outside uneducated voices were louder – their actions still influenced the decision space.
Choice architects don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger ecosystem and the context for each choice matters. Choosing not to influence someone doesn’t mean that you don’t still influence them or their choices. Neither does being unaware that you influence others. Influence is unavoidable, and Sunstein and Thaler would argue that it is important that we therefore think about how we intentionally and unintentionally influence others, and for choice architects to be active in helping people understand the best option for themselves in a given choice.