Tag: Choice Architecture

How Situations Influence Decisions

Michael Mauboussin, the first guest on my podcast, The Knowledge Project, explains how our situations influence our decisions enormously in Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition.

Mistakes born out of situations are difficult to avoid, in part because the influences on us are operating at a subconscious level. “Making good decisions in the face of subconscious pressure,” Mauboussin writes, “requires a very high degree of background knowledge and self-awareness.”

How do you feel when you read the word “treasure”? Do you feel good? What images come to mind? If you are like most people, just ruminating on “treasure” gives you a little lift. Our minds naturally make connections and associate ideas. So if someone introduces a cue to you— a word, a smell, a symbol— your mind often starts down an associative path. And you can be sure the initial cue will color a decision that waits at the path’s end. All this happens outside of your perception.

People around us also influence our decisions, often with good reason. Social influence arises for a couple of reasons. The first is asymmetric information, a fancy phrase meaning someone knows something you don’t. In those cases, imitation makes sense because the information upgrade allows you to make better decisions.

Peer pressure, or the desire to be part of the in-group, is a second source of social influence. For good evolutionary reasons, humans like to be part of a group— a collection of interdependent individuals— and naturally spend a good deal of time assessing who is “in” and who is “out.” Experiments in social psychology have repeatedly confirmed this.

We explain behavior based on an individual's choices and disposition and not the situation. That is, we associate bad behaviour with the person and not the situation. Unless, of course, we're talking about ourselves. This is “the fundamental attribution error”, a phrase coined by Lee Ross, a social psychologist at Stanford University.

There are two sides to this sword as the power of situations can work for good and evil. “Some of the greatest atrocities known to mankind,” Mauboussin writes, “resulted from putting normal people into bad situations.”

We believe our choices are independent of circumstance, however, the evidence points in another direction.


Some Wine With Your Music?

Consider how something as simple as the music playing in a store influences what wine we purchase.

Imagine strolling down the supermarket aisle and coming upon a display of French and German wines, roughly matched for price and quality. You do some quick comparisons, place a German wine in your cart, and continue shopping. After you check out, a researcher approaches and asks why you bought the German wine. You mention the price, the wine’s dryness, and how you anticipate it will go nicely with a meal you are planning. The researcher then asks whether you noticed the German music playing and whether it had any bearing on your decision. Like most, you would acknowledge hearing the music and avow that it had nothing to do with your selection.

But this isn't a hypothetical, it's an actual study and the results affirm that the environment influences our decisions.

In this test, the researchers placed the French and German wines next to each other, along with small national flags. Over two weeks, the scientists alternated playing French accordion music and German Bierkeller pieces and watched the results. When French music played, French wines represented 77 percent of the sales. When German music played, consumers selected German wines 73 percent of the time. (See the image below) The music made a huge difference in shaping purchases. But that’s not what the shoppers thought.

While the customers acknowledged that the music made them think of either France or Germany, 86 percent denied the tunes had any influence on their choice.


This is an example of priming, which psychologists formally define as “the incidental activation of knowledge structures by the current situational context.”1 and priming happens all the time. For priming to be most effective it must have a strong connection to our situation's goals.

Another example of how situations influence us is the default. In a fast moving world of non-stop bits and bytes the default is the path of least resistance — that is, it's the system one option. To move away from the default is labor intensive on our brains. Studies have repeatedly shown that most people go with defaults.

This applies to a wide array of choices, from insignificant issues like the ringtone on a new cell phone to consequential issues like financial savings, educational choice, and medical alternatives. Richard Thaler, an economist, and Cass Sunstein, a law professor, call the relationship between choice presentation and the ultimate decision “choice architecture.” They convincingly argue that we can easily nudge people toward a particular decision based solely on how we arrange the choices for them.

One context for decision making is how choices are structured. Knowing that many people opt for the default option, we can influence (for better or worse) large groups of people.

Mauboussin relates a story about a prominent psychologist popular on the speaking circuit that “underscores how underappreciated choice architecture remains.”

When companies call to invite him to speak, he offers them two choices. Either they can pay him his set fee and get a standard presentation, or they can pay him nothing in exchange for the opportunity to work with him on an experiment to improve choice architecture (e.g., redesign a form or Web site). Of course, the psychologist benefits by getting more real-world results on choice architecture, but it seems like a pretty good deal for the company as well, because an improved architecture might translate into financial benefits vastly in excess of his speaking fee. He noted ruefully that so far not one company has taken him up on his experiment offer.

(As a brief aside, I engage in public speaking on a fairly regular basis. I've toyed with similar ideas. Once I even went as far as offering to speak for no pre-set fee, only “value added” as judged by the client. They opted for the fee.)

Another great example of how environments affect behavior is Stanley Milgram's famous experiment on obedience to authority. “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process,” wrote Stanley Milgram. The Stanford Prison Experiment is, yet, another example.


Situations are generally more powerful than we think

The key point is that situations are generally more powerful than we think and we can do things to resist the pull of “unwelcome social influence.”

Mauboussin offers four tips:

1. Be aware of your situation.

You can think of this in two parts. There is the conscious element, where you can create a positive environment for decision making in your own surroundings by focusing on process, keeping stress to an acceptable level, being a thoughtful choice architect, and making sure to diffuse the forces that encourage negative behaviors.

Then there is coping with the subconscious influences. Control over these influences requires awareness of the influence, motivation to deal with it, and the willingness to devote attention to address possible poor decisions. In the real world, satisfying all three control conditions is extremely difficult, but the path starts with awareness.

2. Consider the situation first and the individual second.

This concept, called attributional charity, insists that you evaluate the decisions of others by starting with the situation and then turning to the individuals, not the other way around. While easier for Easterners than Westerners, most of us consistently underestimate the role of the situation in assessing the decisions we see others make. Try not to make the fundamental attribution error.

3. Watch out for the institutional imperative.

Warren Buffett, the celebrated investor and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, coined the term institutional imperative to explain the tendency of organizations to “mindlessly” imitate what peers are doing. There are typically two underlying drivers of the imperative. First, companies want to be part of the in-group, much as individuals do. So if some companies in an industry are doing mergers, chasing growth, or expanding geographically, others will be tempted to follow. Second are incentives. Executives often reap financial rewards by following the group. When decision makers make money from being part of the crowd, the draw is nearly inescapable.

One example comes from a Financial Times interview with the former chief executive officer of Citigroup Chuck Prince in 2007, before the brunt of the financial crisis. “When the music stops, things will be complicated,” offered Prince, demonstrating that he had some sense of what was to come. “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” The institutional imperative is rarely a good dance partner.

4. Avoid inertia.

Periodically revisit your processes and ask whether they are serving their purpose. Organizations sometimes adopt routines and structures that become crystallized, impeding positive change. Efforts to reform education in the United States, for example, have been met with resistance from teachers and administrators who prefer the status quo.

We like to think that we're better than the situation, that we follow the decision-making process and rationally weigh the facts, consider alternatives, and determine the best course of action. While others are easily influenced, we are not. This is how we're wrong.

Decision making is fundamentally a social exercise, something I cover in my Re:Think Decision Making workshop.

1. “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construction and Stereotype Activation on Action”

The Default Choice, So Hard to Resist

The Web offers choice and competition that is only one click away. But in practice, the power of defaults often matters most.

This article in the NYT flags some interesting points on technological defaults and privacy.

THE default values built into product designs can be particularly potent in the infinitely malleable medium of software, and on the Internet, where a software product or service can be constantly fine-tuned.

“Computing allows you to slice and dice choices in so many ways,” says Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland. “Those design choices also shape our social, cultural and economic choices in ways most people don’t appreciate or understand.”

Default design choices play a central role in the debate over the privacy issues raised by marketers’ tracking of online consumer behavior. The Federal Trade Commission is considering what rules should limit how much online personal information marketers can collect, hold and pass along to other marketers — and whether those rules should be government regulations or self-regulatory guidelines.

Privacy advocates want tighter curbs on gathering online behavioral data, and want marketers to have to ask consumers to collect and share their information, presumably in exchange for discount offers or extra services. Advertisers want a fairly free hand to track online behavior, and to cut back only if consumers choose to opt out.

Defaults are part of a rich field of study that explores “decision architecture” — how a choice is presented or framed. If you want to learn more, read the 2008 book “Nudge,” by Richard H. Thaler.

Too Many Toothpaste Choices

brand toothpaste

Turns out that brand loyalty in toothpaste is so high that retailers are reluctant to eliminate small brands after trying out a product because shoppers will actually go somewhere else. Over time this has led to retailers carrying quite a few brands and now consumers are getting annoyed at the quantity of selection.

From the WSJ:

It should be so easy: Buy toothpaste. But few shopping trips are more bewildering.

An explosion of specialized pastes and gels brag about their powers to whiten teeth, reduce plaque, curb sensitivity and fight gingivitis, sometimes all at the same time. Add in all the flavors and sizes, plus ever-rising prices, and the simple errand turns into sensory overload.

Manufacturers acknowledge the problem and are putting the brakes on new-product introductions. …

Trader Joe's intentionally limits selection possibly because when consumers are overloaded with choices it raises the cognitive demands of choosing. When we're under pressure, we're also more likely to pick the brand we're most familiar with, the one at eye level or the one on sale.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis, providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist.

(H/T Simoleon Sense)

Human Traits Essential to Capitalism

Yale economist Robert Shiller argues that rising inequality in the US was a major cause of the recent crisis, and little is being done to address it. He recommends reading Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Passions and The Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph, Nudge, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, and Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class.

If you did try to summarise it, what would you say you're trying to get at with these book choices?

I think that our economic system reflects our understanding of humankind, and that understanding has been developing, with especial rapidity lately. You have to understand people first before you can understand how to devise an economic system for them. And I think our understanding of people has been accelerating over the last century, or even half-century.

…On The Passions and The Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph, by the great Albert O Hirschman.

This is a great book. It traces the history of an idea – an idea that is central to our whole civilisation today. The idea is that human nature is basically unruly and destructive, or has the potential to become so, but that we've designed a society that sets a space for this kind of impulse, where it's acted out in a civilized manner – and that's capitalism. So when we reflect on some of the horrors of capitalism, we have to consider that things could have been much worse if we didn't have this system. Our fights would have been on real battlefields, rather than economic battlefields. That's a theory, that's an idea that really led to the adoption of capitalism, or the free enterprise system, around the world.

…Tell me about Nudge.

We're now coming up to 2008, when Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published this book. It looks quite a bit different from the first two in that it reflects much more modern psychology. I admired Adam Smith for his personal observations, but there was no experimentation, there was no real modern psychology in it. What Sunstein and Thaler emphasise is a lot of principles of psychology that can only be understood with regard to actual experiments. So they talk about things like anchoring, availability, representativeness, heuristic optimism, overconfidence, asymmetry of appreciation of gains versus losses, status quo bias, framing, self-control mechanisms – all the things that we've learned about.

We're way ahead of Adam Smith now in our understanding of people, and that suggests a different model for our economy. Nudge doesn't present itself in a grandiose way at all, but it's a very important book. It really is a different model of our economy, and how government should be involved.

What was the ultimate cause of the crisis, in Fault Line's view?

The title of his book is Fault Lines – so it's plural. He notes that it's not one cause; he actually has several different classes of causes.

The first of them is political, and the politics that lead to rising inequality. That's been a trend in recent years in most nations of the world. Inequality has been getting worse, particularly in the US, but also in Europe and Asia and many other places. One thing that this has done is it has encouraged governments, who are aware of the resentment caused by the rising inequality, to try to take some kind of steps to make it more politically acceptable. He gives other examples as well, but historically, that has often taken the form of stimulating credit: instead of fixing the problems of the poor, lending money to them. He has a chapter entitled ‘Let them eat credit’.

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