• James Odene

5 reasons choice architecture should be your best friend

Choice architecture, for all that it is a rather pompous sounding jargon phrase, it is something that is very impactful when used effectively. But before choice architecture, let’s look a little at the idea of nudging.

A nudge, as made popular in Richard Thaler’s ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness’, is the idea of edging people towards a more desired decision or away from a less desirable one. Choice architecture is a kind of nudge as it uses consumer science to make the desired choice more likely.

[The impact of nudging is so well documented and researched that even the UK government have used it, setting up what is known colloquially as the ‘Nudge Unit’ with Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This group, now called The Behavioural Insights Team sits outside of the government with the focus on improving government policy and services.]

What is choice architecture?

There is really no way to present a choice in a neutral way – everything surrounding it, the way that it is formed, posed and even what occurs around the decision space have an impact on the choice made. Therefore, choice architecture is understanding what might influence someone’s decision to a posed choice and creating a certain set of nudges towards a preferred choice.

Whilst we may like to believe we can see beyond the context of the choice, in reality, we only choose from what is in front of us. This is known as the availability heuristic.

'I'll have the default choice please'

There was a great experiment done by Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at University College London, that changed the sizes of drinks at a cinema. There was a range of four drink sizes from small to large on offer. Typically, when given this kind of choice, extremeness aversion comes into play and people choose something in the middle. For fear of seeming too extreme which may carry higher risks to health or social status, somewhere in the middle is a good compromise.

What this experiment found was that, by changing the size ranges (what was once the largest size (32oz) is now only the second-largest), people still chose somewhere in the middle. In effect, the liquid consumption rose by 15%, with nothing but changing the options available. Such is the power of choice architecture.

On with the FIVE reasons...

Reason 1: Priming a choice can lead the answer

"Consider those two questions: Was Gandhi more or less than 144 years old when he died? How old was Gandhi when he died?
You did not believe for a moment that Gandhi lived for 144 years, but your associative machinery surely generated an impression of a very ancient person. System 1 understands sentences by trying to make them true, and selective activation of compatible thoughts produces a family of systematic errors that make us gullible and prone to believe too strongly whatever we believe."
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

A great example of this is an experiment by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser that tested how far priming could change someone’s decision.

How'd you fancy this on your front lawn? No?

The experiment involved asking people of a neighbourhood door-to-door if they would consider having a huge ‘Drive Carefully’ sign erected in front of their house. Unsurprisingly most people said no! In fact, 83% of the time the request was rejected outright.

They managed to change this with a different set of houses to 76% of people saying yes!


Through priming. Three weeks previous to this final request, these particular houses had been visited and asked to host a small sign of only a few centimetres saying, ‘Be a safe driver’, with most saying yes as it was hardly an inconvenience.

Their future decision had been primed. Now that they had already said yes to something smaller, they were far more lenient to accepting the huge sign.

This simple act of priming had taken it from 83% rejection to a 76% rate of acceptance.

For anyone working in marketing the implications of this could be large – if you can get people to engage with your brand on a very small basis, it will likely prime them for much larger asks in the future. Or the other way around, don’t ask for something big before you ask for something small.

“Priming is a powerful force in everyday life, by which subtle suggestions to our subconscious mind can influence your subsequent behaviour.”
- S. Blakeslee, S. Macknik, S. Martinez-Conde, Sleights of Mind

Reason 2: Framing a choice can make it the more obvious choice

Think of framing as the designed context of a question, whereby the intention is to lead the result in a certain way.

So, you’ve been told by the doctor that you should have an operation.

Would you accept the procedure if you were told that of those that have this operation, 10% are dead within five years?

Or would it have been better to be told, of those that have had this operation, 90% are still alive and well after five years?

Even though these are of course the same odds, most people would far prefer the prospect of a 90% chance of life over a 10% chance of death.

The influence of this kind of framing is so powerful that doctors themselves are indeed susceptible to adjusting whether they recommend certain treatments depending on whether the possible outcomes have been presented to them positively or negatively (Tversky and Kahneman, 1981). I mean, this may horrify you, but doctors are only human!

“Framing works because people tend to be somewhat mindless, passive decision-makers. Their Reflective System does not do the work that would be required to check and see whether reframing the questions would produce a different answer.”
- R. Thaler & C Sunstein, Nudge

Reason 3: Context is everything

‘When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”
- Eric Hoffer

Remember the UK governments ‘Nudge Unit’? They have used social norms to achieve some pretty interesting results.

Think you are an individual that isn’t led by others? Think again.

Working with samples of 100,000 households, they attempted to improve the rate of tax debtors repaying their debts. Knowing that people are often swayed by what everyone else does, known as the herd instinct or social proof, they added lines to the letters sent out to those who were in debt.

They had four letters:

  1. The local norm: mentioned that most people in their area had paid their tax on time

  2. The debt norm: mentioned that most people with debt like theirs had already paid

  3. The local and debt norm: contained both the local and debt language

  4. The control letter: has had no mention of others

Here are their results:


As you can see, the letter with both the local and debt language had the best return rate and resulted in a further £1.2m of debt being repaid in the first month compared to the control.

Imagine the impact here on say a multiple-choice diet change challenge. Assuming that there is roughly an equal chance of people committing to their chosen diet post the challenge no matter if they choose part-time veggie, vegetarian or vegan, then perhaps it’s worth nudging them towards opting for vegan. This could be as simple as adding a line, ‘Most people choose to transition to a vegan diet. Please choose your diet plan’.

Such a simple line could have an amazing impact. If anyone wants to try this kind of action out, I would love to connect and assist in running the research for the impact.

“Every perceivable sign can frame our decisions.”
- Phil Barden, Decoded

A few quick ones to finish…

Reason 4: Choice paralysis can work for or against you

If you offer too many choices that are hard to navigate then chances are people will experience choice paralysis, this is like the hardware crashing for decision making.

What happens next could work for or against you.

People could be biased by extremeness avoidance and just go somewhere in the middle. This is like ordering the ‘house’ wine instead of looking at the seemingly hundreds of wines.

They could drop out of the decision process and remove their custom. For this reason, it is always best to make any decision really simple to make.

Or they could opt for a default, if one is offered…

Reason 5: The default choice will do just fine thanks

The default choice is where most people will place themselves as it seems like the risk-averse choice. This has been used to fantastic effect with changing the opt-in organ donation register to an opt-out organ donation register.

Check out this table that shows the level of people on the organ donation registers across some European countries. You won’t need ten guesses to see which countries at the point of data capture had opt-in versus those that had opt-out policies. The fact is that the default option is 'good enough' for most people.


Another great tool for choice architecture is using a decoy: check out this blog where I show how a decoy choice can make the preferred choice more likely!

Final thought

There is more to explore within choice architecture, however for the sake of your life flashing before your eyes, I'll leave it there for now. However, the above five points highlight the power of fully testing and considering how you pose choices to people.

If you don’t consider the impact of not only the request but the context of the request – you may be influencing a choice you don’t want without even realising!

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