Choice Architecture

HT to

After reading “Nudge“, by R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, I started thinking of Solution Focused coaching as a form of Choice Architecture.

Choice Architecture means giving structure to the options available to the chooser.

The basic premise is that we humans are very easily swayed by cognitive biases and environmental triggers when making choices. The result is that often we make the wrong choice, i.e. we choose something that is against our long-term interests (eating that cake now vs. sticking to the diet), as judged by ourselves (we regret having had that cake), simply because of the way the choice was presented to us or because of the situation we were in. For example, it is well known that framing an option in terms of “do not loose this opportunity” is about twice as effective as highlighting the benefits of the very same option. It is also well known that eating out with friends who eat a lot makes people gain weight…. and once your dinner companion orders a Chocolate Fudge Bomb, after inspecting the dessert tray for 10 minutes in your presence, it is difficult to stay away from desserts!

Another basic premise of choice architecture is that there is no “neutral’ architecture when presenting options from which to choose from. Placing products in one shelf and not in another has an effect on sales.
So even if a store assistant is “just putting stuff on the shelves” as a matter of fact she is influencing, one way or the other, the customers’ choices.

The authors created an acronym to summarize the key elements in Choice Architecture: NUDGES (of course!)

NUDGES stands for:

Understand mapping
Give feedback
Expect errors
Structure complex choices

That means that better decisions are made by a person, if:
– the incentives of the different options are made extremely clear: who pays, who uses, who profits, who chooses?
– the different options are clearly laid out and made relevant. For example, digital cameras advertise their megapixels, but is it worth to spend 100 dollars more to go from 5 to 7 megapixels? Instead of that information, consumers might be better off if they are told that 5 megapixels produce quality photos at 9×12 inches, 7 megapixels produce quality photos at “poster size”
– the unavoidable default option (i.e. what should happen when the chooser does… nothing) should be set with the best interest of the chooser in mind. For example, automatic renewal for magazine subscriptions means that many people will subscribe, for a long time, to magazine they don’t read. It would be in the best interest of readers if the renewal was not automatic.
– a way to give immediate feedback is built in the process; for example, digital cameras give an immediate feedback re the quality of the picture taken
– error is to be expected, so the system is very forgiving. For example, in the Paris metro system you can put the ticket in the machine that reads it and validates it in any way (i.e. magnetic stripe up or down).
– complex choices are structured in a way that is easy to understand. For example, “collaborative filtering” systems help customers to choose from many alternatives. At, choosing among hundreds of thousands of books is made easier by the software that shows books “you might be interested in” based on your buying history, your browsing history and on what other people with similar interests bought.
[all of the above examples from the book “Nudge”}

In a way, structuring an optimal architecture for clients’ choices is what solution focused coaches do.
We do not suggest a choice. We are too respectful of the client to do that!
Rather, we strive to help clients to see things from different perspectives so they can select strategies and options that work for them. And yes, we do “nudge” clients: we help them see the good and not only the bad in a situation. But no choice is off the table.
Like the cafeteria manager that chooses to put fruit at eye level and twinkies in a lower shelf, the SF coach works with the client to help him see what is working – knowing fully well that clients usually are far too good for their own good in seeing what is not working, just like kids in a school cafeteria are well too aware of the allure of a candy bar (both biases, our sweet tooth and our “negativity bias” are evolutionarily evolved and get in the way of optimal decision making). However, putting twinkies in ‘second place’ does not mean forbidding them: the choice ultimately is up to kids, just like highlighting what works does not mean intruding on the client’s decision making process, rather compensating it against systematic, in-built biases.

In Solution Focused coaching we give clients NUDGES, too:

iNcentives – inviting clients to explore the consequences of a choice: what the is the client going to get out of that specific decision? is it worth the time / effort? Is it consistent with the client’s values and other goals? Who else is affected? What is the overall cost/benefit ratio of the choice in question? Are there ways to make a specific outcome more desirable or more doable? What would the client be doing differently?

Understanding mapping – helping clients to improve their ability to map and hence to select options that will make them better off. What are the options? What do they really mean? How can the client better understand the information re the different options? Can we assign numbers? Can we map specific effects? Can we translate the different options into specific behaviors and action steps? Can we help the client visualize vividly, and in detail, the steps needed to implement an option?

Defaults – they are unavoidable: what happens to the decision maker if he / she does nothing? Because of inertia and because of the “status quo bias” many people, when confronted with options, will do precisely that: nothing. How can we help clients make that “nothing” better for them? How can they improve their situation if they choose not to choose? How can we help them build a better alternative to the choosing in question?

Give feedback – the bread and butter of coaches. We can give feedback to clients. We can help clients set up their own indicators and their own feedback systems. How can the client know things are going wrong? Better still, how can the client know things are about to go wrong?

Expect error – helping clients come up with a back up plan; helping clients to use errors as part of the learning process. What if…? What can we do to prevent this from happening? Focusing on what has worked: despite the “error” what has worked? How did you manage to do that? How did you manage to cope with that error?…

Structure complex choices – helping clients see the different scenarios and using scaling questions to assess progress and solutions.

Summer Readings

Summer for me is always a time to regroup.

To think.

To read and keep up to date.

To plan.

… and to transform all of this newly acquired knowledge in useful behavioral strategies for my clients!!

Since June 18th, here are the books I read: