Choice Architecture

Choice architecture: no, it’s not a compliment about a building, but something many politicians, businesses and parents have been involved in for years.  It describes the process of organising the context in which people make decisions.  Simply put, it’s providing choice, but making the best or healthiest choice as easy as possible. 

Take for example your average office building.  Employees have the choice to take the stairs or the elevator to the floor they work on.  However, often the stairwell is hard to get to, or an unpleasant place to be.  What if the elevator was a bit harder to get to, and the stairwell was more convenient and attractive to use?

Here’s a food related example. In a workplace cafeteria you have the choice of buying a range of foods for lunch.  This range involves sandwiches, meat pies, fresh fruit, cakes and biscuits.  A good choice architect would arrange the offerings in a way to make the most healthful options most appealing and affordable.

Recently I was alerted to the concept of choice architecture, or libertarian paternalism when attending a fascinating seminar entitled Making People Be Healthy by Associate Professor and Ethicist Martin Wilkinson.  Wilkinson described the writings of Thaler and Sunstein in this field.

Describing what I’d previously thought of as common sense in a free world, libertarian paternalism takes into account that people should be free to do what they like (hence the libertarian aspect), but the paternalism aspect acknowledges that “it’s legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better”.

Of course, there is a huge ethical discussion to be had about how one defines healthier and better.  Wilkinson says it depends on individual details, “A health gain might not make people net better off, and even if it makes some better off, it may not be an improvement for all”.

So giving people the choice to take the stairs or the elevator is libertarianism, making the stairs “the place to be seen”, but keeping the elevator is libertarian paternalism, and removing the elevators and forcing people to take the stairs is paternalism (does the term nanny state come to mind?)

A meat pie or a biscuit occasionally might be my only vice in an otherwise highly active and healthy lifestyle; or it might be my only emotional pick-me-up during an otherwise dreadful day.  One person’s fancy is another’s poison.

For Thaler and Sunstein the fact that people should be given choice is incredibly important with respect to cognitive psychology and behavioural ecomonics – two areas I personally have no academic knowledge of.  However it’s known that if access to less healthy choices is suddenly stopped, human nature will rebel and the ‘banned’ choice will become more alluring.

So, health professionals know that the ‘best’ choice would probably be a sandwich followed by a piece of fruit.  Behavioural psychologists would probably argue that if you only provided people with sandwiches and fruit every day, they would probably opt to go to the local store and buy a pie and a biscuit.  The libertarian paternalist choice architect would provide all options, but place the sandwiches and fruit before the other options, and ensure they vary in content from day to day so as to remain interesting, provide information for the customers on how to choose a healthy and varied diet that suits them as individuals, and ensure that the sandwiches and fruit represent good value for money.

As I said before – it’s just plain old common sense really!


Categories: Food Industry