From a consumer viewpoint, choice situations should be presented in a clear and comprehensible manner that facilitates consumers’ correct understanding of what is at stake and helps them to choose an alternative that fits most closely their needs or preferences. But policy makers may go farther and design choices to direct the decision-making consumers to a desirable or recommended alternative in their judgement.
It is very likely for Humans (unlike economic persons, or Econs) to be influenced in their decisions by the way a choice problem is presented; even if unintentional — it is almost unavoidable. Sometimes, however, an intervention to influence a decision-maker is done intentionally. Choice architecture relates to how choice problems are presented: the way the problem is organised and structured, and how alternatives are described, including tools or techniques that may be used to guide a decision-maker to a particular choice alternative. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have called such tools ‘nudges’, and the designer of the choice problem is referred to as a ‘choice architect’. In their book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” (2009), the researchers were very specific, nonetheless, about the kinds of nudging they support and advocate (1). A nudge may be likened to a light push of a consumer out of his or her ‘comfort zone’ towards a particular choice alternative (e.g., action, product), but it should be harmless and left optional to consumers whether to accept or reject.
Thaler and Sunstein argue that in some cases more action is needed to ‘nudge’ consumers in a right direction. That is because consumers, as Humans, often do not consider carefully enough the choice situation and alternatives, they tend to err, and may not do what would actually be in their own best interest. It may be added that consumers’ preferences may not be well-established, and when these are unstable it could make it furthermore difficult for consumers to find an alternative that fits their preferences more closely. Hence, the authors recommend acting in a careful corrective manner that guides consumers towards an alternative that a policy maker assesses will serve them better (e.g., health-care, savings). Yet they insist that any intervention of nudging should not be imposed on the consumer. They call their approach ‘libertarian paternalism’ — a policy maker may tell consumers what alternative would be right for them but the consumer is eventually left with the freedom of choice how to act. They state that:
To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
Thaler and Sunstein suggest six key principles, or types, of nudges: (a) Defaults; (b) Expect error (i.e., nudges designed to accommodate human error); (c) Give feedback (nudges reliant on social influence may be included here); (d) Understanding ‘mappings’ (i.e., a match between a choice made and its welfare outcome, such as consumption experience); (e) Structure complex choices; (f) Incentives. The authors discuss and propose how to use those tools in dealing with choice issues such as complexity and a status quo bias (inertia) (e.g., applied to student loans, retirement pensions and savings, medication plans).
Let’s look at some examples of how choice architecture may influence consumer choice:
A default may be set-up to determine what happens if a consumer makes no active choice (e.g., ‘too difficult to choose’, ‘too many options’) or to induce the consumer to take a certain action. Defaults can change the significance of opt-in and opt-out choice methods. A basic opt-in could ask a consumer to tick a box if she agrees to participate in a given programme. Now consider a slight change by pre-ticking the box as default — if the consumer does not like to join, she can uncheck the box (opt-out). A more explicit default and opt-out combination could state up-start (e.g., in a heading) that the consumer is automatically enrolled in the programme and if she declines she should send an e-mail to the organiser. If inclusion in a programme is the default, and consumers have to opt-out of the programme, many more will end-up enrolled than if they had to actively approve their participation. Yet the effect may vary depending on the ease of opting-out (just unchecking the box vs. sending a separate e-mail). Defaults of this type may be used for benign purposes such as subscription to a e-newsletter versus sensitive purposes like organ donation (2).
- A default option is particularly attractive when the ‘alternative’ action is actually choosing from a long list of other alternatives (e.g., mutual and equity funds for investment).
Making a sequence of choice decisions is a recurring purchase activity. As a simple example, suppose you have to construct a list of items that you want to purchase (e.g., songs to compile, books to order) by choosing one item from each of a series of choice sets. Presenting choice-sets in an increasing order of choice-set size is likely to encourage the chooser to enter a maximising mind-set — starting with a small set, it is easier to examine more closely all options in the set before choosing, and while the set size increases the chooser will continue trying to examine options more exhaustively. When starting with a large choice-set and decreasing the size thereon, the opposite happens where the chooser enters a simplifying or satisficing mind-set. Thus, over choice-sets, the chooser in an increasing order condition is likely to perform a deeper search and examine overall more options. As described by Levav, Reinholtz and Lin, consumers are “sticky adapters” (3). When constructing an investment portfolio, for instance, a financial policy maker may nudge investors to examine more of the funds, bonds and equities available by dividing them into classes to be presented as choice-sets in an increasing order of size (up to a reasonable limit).
Multiple aspects of choice design or architecture arise in the context of mass customization. Taking the case of price, a question arises whether to specify the cost of each level of a customized attribute (actually the price premium for upgraded levels vs. a baseline level) or the total price of the final product designed. A proponent opinion argues that providing detailed price information for levels of quality attributes allows consumers to consider the monetary implications of choosing an upgraded level on each attribute. It is not as difficult as trying to extract the marginal cost of a level chosen on each quality attribute from the total price. Including prices for levels of quality attributes leads consumers to choose more frequently intermediate attribute levels (compared with a by-alternative choice-set)(4). A counter opinion posits that carefully weighing price information on each attribute is not so easy (consumers report higher subjective difficulty), actually causing consumers to be too cautious and configure products that are less expensive but also of lower quality. Hence, providing a total price for the outcome product could be sufficient and more useful for the customers (5). It is hard to give any conclusive design suggestion in this case.
In a last example, the form in which calorie information is provided on restaurant menus matters no less than posting it. As a recent research by Parker and Lehmann shows, it is practically possible to be over-doing it (6). Consistent with other studies, the researchers find that when posting calorie figures next to food dishes, consumers choose from the calorie-posted menu items with lower calorie content on average than from a similar traditional menu but with no calorie figures. Separating low-calorie items from their original categories of food type (e.g., salads, burgers) into a new group, as some restaurants do, may eliminate, however, the advantage of calorie-posting. While the logic of a separate group is that it would make the group more conspicuous and easier for diners to attend to it, it could make it easier for them instead to exclude those items from consideration. Nevertheless, some qualification is needed as the title given to the group also matters.
Parker and Lehmann show that organising the low-calorie items in a separate group explicitly titled as such (e.g., “Low Calories”, “Under 600 Calories”) attenuates the posting effect, thus eliminating the advantage of inducing consumers to order lower-calorie items. The title is important because it is easier this way for consumers to screen out this category from consideration (e.g., as unappealing on face of it). It is demonstrated that giving a positive name unrelated to calories (e.g., “Eddie’s Favourites”, “Fresh and Fit”) would generate less rejection and make it no more likely to be screened out as a group than other categories. In a menu that is just calorie-posted, consumers are more likely to trade-off the calories with other information on a food item such as its composition and price. But if the consumers are helped to screen the low-calorie group as a measure of simplifying their decision process in an early stage, it means they would also ignore their calorie details.
An additional explanation can be suggested for disregarding the low-calorie items when grouped together: If those items are mixed in categories of other items similar to them in type of food, each item would stand-out as ‘low calorie’ and be perceived as different and more important. If the low-calorie items are aggregated on the other hand in a set-aside group, they are more likely to be perceived as of diminished importance or appeal collectively and be ignored together. (cf. ). Therefore, creating a separate group of varied items pulled out from all the other groups sends a wrong message to consumers and may nudge them in the wrong direction.
Both public and private policy makers can use nudging. But there are some limitations deserving attention especially with regard to private (business) policy makers. Companies sometimes act out of belief that in order to recruit customers they should present complex alternative plans (e.g., mobile telecoms, insurance, bank loans), which includes obscuring vital details and making comparisons between alternatives very difficult. They see nudging tools that are meant to reduce complexity of consumer choice as playing against their interest (e.g., if choice is complex it will be easier for the company to capture [trap-in] the customer). That counters the intention of Thaler and Sunstein, and they stand against this kind of practice.
In the case of helping customers to see more clearly the relation, and match, between their patterns of service usage and the cost they are required to pay, Thaler and Sunstein propose a nudge scheme called RECAP — Record, Evaluate, and Compare Alternative Prices. The scheme entails publishing in readily accessible channels (e.g., websites) full details of their service and price plans as well as provide existing customers periodic reports that show how their level of usage on each component of service contributes to total cost. These measures that increase transparency would help customers understand what they pay for, monitor and control their costs, and reconsider from time to time their current service plan vis-à-vis alternative plans of the same provider and those of competitors. The problem is that service providers are usually reluctant to hand over such detailed information from their own good will. Public regulators may have to require companies to create a RECAP scheme, or perhaps nudge them to do so.
In the lighter scenario, companies prefer to avoid nudging techniques that work in the benefit of consumers because of concern it would hurt their own interests. In the worse scenario, companies misinterpret nudging and use tools that actively manipulate consumers to choose not in their benefit (e.g., highlight a more expensive product the consumer does not really need). Thaler and Sunstein are critical of either public or private (business) policy makers who conceive and apply nudges in their own self-interest. They tend to dedicate more effort, however, to counter objections to government intervention in consumers’ affairs and popular suspicions of malpractice by branches of the government (i.e., these issues seem to be of major concern in the United States that may not be fully understood in other countries). Of course it is important not turn a blind eye to harmful usage of nudges by public as well as private choice architects.
There are many opportunities in cleverly using nudging tools to guide and assist consumers. Yet there can be a thin line between interventions of imposed choice and free choice or between obtrusive and libertarian paternalism. Designing and implementing nudging tools can therefore be a delicate craft, advisably a matter primarily for expert choice architects.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”; Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, 2009; Penguin Books (updated edition).
(2) Ibid 1, and: “Beyond Nudges: Tools of Choice Architecture”; Eric J. Johnson and others, 2012; Marketing Letters, 23, pp. 487-504.
(3) “The Effect of Ordering Decisions by Choice-Set Size on Consumer Search”; Jonathan Levav, Nicholas Reinholtz, & Claire Lin, 2012; Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (October), pp. 585-599.
(4) “Contingent Response to Self-Customized Procedures: Implications for Decision Satisfaction and Choice”; Ana Valenzuela, Ravi Dahr, & Florian Zettelmeyer, 2009; Journal of Marketing Research, 46 (December), pp. 754-763.
(5) “Marketing Mass-Customized Products: Striking a Balance Between Utility and Complexity”; Benedict G.C. Dellaert and Stefan Stremersch, 2005; Journal of Marketing Research, 42 (May), pp. 219-227.
(6) “How and When Grouping Low-Calorie Options Reduces the Benefits of Providing Dish-Specific Calorie Information”; Jeffrey R. Parker and Donald R. Lehmann, 2014; Journal of Consumer Research, 41 (June), pp. 213-235.
(7) Johnson et al. (see #2).