It’s just over five years since the publication of Nudge, the seminal pop behavioural economics book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Drawing from research in psychology and behavioural economics, it revealed the many common cognitive biases, fallacies, and heuristics we all suffer from. We often fail to act in our own self-interest, because our everyday decisions are affected by ‘choice architectures’; the particular way a set of options are presented. ‘Choice architects’ (as the authors call them) cannot help but influence the decisions people make.
Thaler and Sunstein encourage policy-makers to adopt a ‘libertarian paternalist’ approach; acknowledge that the systems they design and regulate inevitably affect people’s decisions, and design them so as to induce people to make decisions which are good for them. Their recommendations were enthusiastically picked up by governments (in the UK, the cabinet office even set up a dedicated behavioural insights team). The dust has now settled on the debate, and the approach has been explored in a variety of settings, from pension plans to hygiene in public toilets.
But libertarian paternalism has been criticised as an oxymoron; how is interference with an individual’s decisions, even when in their genuine best interests, compatible with respecting their autonomy? The authors responded that non-interference was not an option. In many cases, there is no neutral choice architecture. A list of pension plans must be presented in some order, and if you know that people tend to pick the first one regardless of its features, you ought to make it the one that seems best for them.
Whilst I’m sympathetic to Thaler and Sunstein’s response to the oxymoron charge, the ethical debate shouldn’t end there. Perhaps the question of autonomy and paternalism can be tackled head-on by asking how individuals might design their own choice architectures. If I know that I am liable to make poor decisions in certain contexts, I want to be able to nudge myself to correct that. I don’t want to rely solely on a benevolent system designer / policy-maker to do it for me. I want systems to ensure that my everyday, unconsidered behaviours, made in the heat-of-the-moment, are consistent with my life goals, which I define in more carefully considered, reflective states of mind.
In our digital lives, choice architectures are everywhere, highly optimised and A/B tested, designed to make you click exactly the way the platform wants you to. But there is also the possibility that they can be reconfigured by the individual to suit their will. An individual can tailor their web experience by configuring their browser to exclude unwanted aspects and superimpose additional functions onto the sites they visit.
This general capacity – for content, functionality and presentation to be altered by the individual – is a pre-requisite for refashioning choice architectures in our own favour. Services like RescueTime, which blocks certain websites for certain periods, represent a very basic kind of user-defined choice architecture which simply removes certain choices altogether. But more sophisticated systems would take an individuals’ own carefully considered life goals – say, to eat healthily, be prudent, or get a broader perspective on the world – and construct their digital experiences to nudge behaviour which furthers those goals.
Take, for instance, online privacy. Research by behavioural economist Alessandro Acquisti and colleagues at CMU has shown how effective nudging privacy can be. The potential for user-defined privacy nudges is strong. In a reflective, rational state, I may set myself a goal to keep my personal life private from my professional life. An intelligent privacy management system could take that goal and insert nudges into the choice architectures which might otherwise induce me to mess up. For instance, by alerting me when I’m about to accept a work colleague as a friend on a personal social network.
Next generation nudge systems should enable a user-defined choice architecture layer, which can be superimposed over the existing choice architectures. This would allow individuals to A/B test their decision-making and habits, and optimise them for their own ends. Ignoring the power of nudges is no longer a realistic or desirable option. We need intentionally designed choice architectures to help us navigate the complex world we live in. But the aims embedded in these architectures need to be driven by our own values, priorities and life goals.