Influence is Unavoidable - Joe Abittan

Influence is Unavoidable

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.
Paternalistic Nudges - Joe Abittan

Paternalistic Nudges

In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler argue in favor of libertarian paternalism. Their argument is that our world is complex and interconnected, and it is impossible for people to truly make decisions on their own. Not only is it impossible for people to simply make their own decisions, it is impossible for other people to avoid influencing the decisions of others. Whether we decide to influence a decision in a particular way, or whether we decide to try to avoid any influence on another’s decision, we still shape how decisions are presented, understood, and contextualized. Given this reality, the best alternative is to try to help people make consistently better decisions than they would without aid and assistance.

 

The authors describe libertarian paternalism by writing:

 

“The approach we recommend does count as paternalistic, because private and public choice architects are not merely trying to track or to implement people’s anticipated choices. Rather, they are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge.”

 

The nudge is the key aspect of libertarian paternalism. Forcing people into a single choice, forcing them to accept your advice and perspective, and aggressively trying to change people’s behaviors and opinions doesn’t fit within the libertarian paternalism framework advocated by Sunstein and Thaler. Instead, a more subtle form of guidance toward good decisions is employed. People retain maximal choices if desired, and their opinions, decisions, and behaviors are somewhat constrained but almost nothing is completely off the table.

 

“A nudge,” Sunstein and Thaler write, “as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

 

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow demonstrated that people make predictable errors and have predictable biases. If we can understand these thinking errors and biases, then we can identify situations in which these biases and cognitive errors are likely to lead people to making suboptimal decisions. To go a step further, as Sunstein and Thaler would suggest, if we are a choice architect, we should design and structure choices in a way that leads people away from predictable cognitive biases and errors. We should design choices in a way that takes those thinking mistakes into consideration and improves the way people understand their choices and options.

 

As a real world example, if we are structuring a retirement savings plan, we can be relatively sure that people will anchor around a default contribution built into their retirement savings plan. If we want to encourage greater retirement savings (knowing that economic data indicate people rarely save enough), we can set the default to 8% or higher, knowing that people may reduce the default rate, but likely won’t eliminate contributions entirely. Setting a high default is a nudge toward better retirement saving. We could chose not to have a default rate at all, and it is likely that people wouldn’t be sure about what rate to select and might chose a low rate below inflation or simply chose not to enter a rate at all, completely failing to contribute anything to the plan. It is clear that there is a better outcome that we, as choice architects, could help people attain if we understand how their minds work and can apply a subtle nudge.
The Necessity of Paternalistic of Choice Architects

The Necessity of Paternalistic Choice Architects

One of my favorite experiments to think about is a fabled study about people and jam. In an experiment, people at a store were able to sample jam. In one situation, there were only a few jams to sample, and in the other situation there was a huge selection of jams. Shoppers could try them all before making a purchase. The natural expectation (at least for me) is to assume that those who get to try more jams will be more happy with their final selection. After all, they have more jams to try and are more likely to find a jam that best suited their taste preferences. The results, however, suggest that people who only had a few jams to sample more happy with their final jam choice than the people with a bunch of jams to try.

 

This experiment reveals something interesting about how our mind works. Unlimited freedom and choice means that we are never truly satisfied with the decisions we make. We will always have a lingering doubt, and we will live with the regret of possibly making the wrong choice. The more options we have, the more likely we will feel as though we may have made the wrong decision. We might feel compelled to go beyond the standard default choice, selecting against a strawberry to go with huckleberry, even though we know we would have been perfectly content getting our regular strawberry jam.

 

The results of the jam experiment have important implications for choice architects. A choice architect is anyone who is in a position to organize, design, shape, administer, or deliver a choice to another person. Parents are choice architects when they give their children different options for toys, sports, or how to generally spend their time and attention. Your human resources benefits manager is a choice architect when they determine which health care plan types will be offered to employees. Very few of our decisions are truly free from a choice architect of one sort.

 

These choice architects have important decisions to make. In the book Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler make an argument for libertarian paternalism, the idea that choice architects can nudge people into making the decisions that will be best for them. They write, “The paternalistic aspect lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.” It can seem naïve and elitist to believe that  one person can make such decisions for another person, but in reality, it is imperative that people believe and act as if it is possible, and the jam experience helps show why this is necessary.

 

None of us know exactly how much each person needs to save for retirement, which health insurance plan will truly be the best possible plan for ourselves or someone else, or which jam is really going to be the one for someone else. But we can generally identify the right direction in each choice for most people. We know people typically don’t save as much for retirement as they should, so defaulting them into a retirement savings plan at 8% is better than defaulting them into no retirement savings plan or a plan that sets aside 3% of their paycheck. Young and healthy people may not believe they need health insurance, but we can auto enroll them into a standard high deductible plan if they don’t actively make a choice for themselves, ensuring they have some type of coverage in the case of a car crash or ski accident. We know most people eat jam with toast or maybe on pancakes, so most people probably aren’t that interested in purchasing a jalapeno jam during their typical weekend grocery store trip. The strawberry can stay at eye level while the jalapeno jam can stay on the top shelf and maybe get a temporary end-cap spot for the holidays.

 

The jam study also shows that people don’t want to be presented with too many options. They will have trouble making a choice and won’t be satisfied with their final decision. Narrowing the range of choices can help people better manage their decisions, and can help ensure they don’t select a plan that is wildly off course for their best interest. This is a basic first step for a choice architect, and reveals the value that choice architects can provide with only a minimal level of paternalistic interference. Choice architects can take things a step further, as Sunstein and Thaler encourage throughout Nudge, but taking a step backward, eliminating the paternalism in choice architecture, doesn’t encourage flourishing by maximizing freedom of choice, it creates paralysis, doubt, and too many options for a person to reasonably consider, especially when dealing with topics more complex than jam.

Reviewing Good and Bad

Marcus Aurelius has a great way of thinking about the events which occur throughout our lifetime and the way in which we react to those events. Part of the stoic philosophy involves rational thought before emotional action, and through reflection Aurelius explains what he thinks of the way we often look at good and bad events in the world. He writes, “…good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” What is great about the way that Aurelius looks at the events that happen in our life is that he does not dwell on whether they are overall positive or negative, and he does not fret about why good things happen for bad people or why bad things happen to good people.  His thoughts are filled with a level of realism and pragmatism that we don’t often build into our own lives.  He takes the world as it is, and  tries to identify how to best move forward given the situation and experiences that we all face and share.

 

What I like about Aurelius’ quote, which is an idea he brings up throughout Meditations, is the focus on the perspective that we bring to all of our experiences and the idea that we are constantly trying to judge and keep track of our life.  We can spend time and mental focus worrying about why good or bad things happen to us, and we can continually judge our experiences as good or bad, but ultimately, this thought does not get us where we want to go. What we see as either positive, neutral, or negative can be interpreted in widely different ways by people with different social economic status, racial backgrounds, and experiences.  What we may perceive as a positive event in our life could be a tragically negative event in the life of another person.  Rather than spending time ascribing a positive or negative qualifier to anything that happens in our life, Marcus Aurelius would argue that we should think of how an event impacts our lives and the lives of others, and we should move forward from that event in way that is guided by reason so that we can better grow and participate in society.

 

I think that Aurelius’ ideas parallel nicely with Bob Berg’s ideas about relationships from his book The Go Giver. Berg wrote about how we view what happens in relationships and what we expect to get our of relationships. When we enter a relationship, be it personal, sexual, business, or any other form, our expectations and desires will influence how well we connect with another.  If we can approach a relationship without worrying about whether something was good or bad for us, and without judging everything in terms of how it relates just to us, then we can grow and connect better with others. Berg writes about being selfless in relationships and avoiding the mental accounting of keeping track of the good that you receive verses the good that the other receives.  He writes that a focus on making sure each event is equally matched for both partners by another event of reciprocal value will eventually pull you apart.  When you can understand that good and bad things happen to you both equally, you can focus your relationship on the other person and what your goal is together.