CHOICE AND PUBLIC SERVICE REFORMS

CHOICE ARCHITECTS

Nudging people to make the right decision

Comment

Delivering more choice to consumers is a key driver in the private sector. It has also   been central to the ideas informing public sector reforms.

Politicians like in principle to improve freedom of choice. Parents should have more choice over where they can send their children to school, patients over what hospital and indeed doctor they will be treated by and so on. To enable choice the Government has sought to provide more detailed information, hence we have league tables for schools and many local authorities have choice advisers  (not enough according to critics)to help parents choose their schools and in particular to understand the differences between the schools and what they offer.

So Choice is a good thing.

But there is always an assumption that if individuals are given objective information they will make a rational choice or, to put it another way, the right choice ie one that is in their interests .But counter- intuitively  research suggests that rather too often this is not the case because it depends so much  on the context     The  world , after all is a complex place and it does a good job of keeping us busy. Most of us just do not have the time to think deeply about every choice we make. People often find it difficult to make the choices they want to make because it is hard to understand the options they have available and difficult to accurately predict the impact of those options on future experiences. In these situations, people cannot take best advantage of the freedom of choice.

And so quite often  against objective benchmarks, we make what could only be regarded as  the wrong choice given our circumstances. In their book Nudge, The Gentle Power of Choice Architecture ;Richard H. Thaler and  Cass Sunstein (2008) explain that people look for rules of thumb for decision making; these strategies often work so well for the small decisions in life, such as buying a television from a trusted brand name, that we are tempted to use similar shortcuts for more consequential choices as well, such as selecting a retirement plan, a school or  a university  because it is the one we have heard of before. If everyone had ready access to complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control, we would likely deliberate much more about these choices, and demonstrate in the process unerring wisdom. However, since that is not the case, we need some help to make the best choices.  Anyone who determines how choices and options are presented to people—can help us lead more satisfying lives by considering how their presentations can move us toward different choices, and thus different experiences. Behavioral science has produced remarkable insights into human fallibility, making it now possible to give people helpful “nudges” toward more satisfying and productive decisions. People who help others to make good choices are known as ‘choice architects’. So Nudge suggests that, by following simple principles, so called choice architects can provide it. It can be both easy and inexpensive to nudge people toward better decisions and experiences. It can also save costs to the individuals, employers  and the state, resulting in greater efficiencies.  An example is given relating to a school cafeteria. The manager wants to encourage more consumption of certain (Healthy) foods. So she redesigns the cafeteria and the way food is presented and  its placement. The re-launch is a success. It  leads to a 25% increase in the consumption  of the healthy foods. The manager encouraged pupils to make a choice that was in their interests, though they were not aware of it .She was a choice architect.

Using the term architect is not coincidental. When architects design schools or any building for that matter, they are generally trying to influence behaviour as no building is design or choice neutral.  In schools they  aim to create a space conducive to learning and so might design user friendly common areas, open stairwells to encourage interaction , an accessible Headteachers office and so on  Even the choice of location of the washrooms is loaded with significance in this respect. So there is nothing neutral about the choice of location

‘Nudge’  and the idea of choice architects and architecture  has implications for every walk of life including, obviously, education whether it involves choosing a school, qualifications, college course, university or career .The argument is that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence peoples behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier  better and more fulfilled. .Self-conscious efforts by institutions in the public and private sectors and in government to steer peoples choices in directions that will improve their lives and make choosers better off is the right direction to go say the authors.  Some libertarians object to this idea and practice(though it is already firmly embedded) and interpret this as unwarranted and unwanted, with   state or big brother interference in effect limiting real  freedom of choice. But the authors see this benign approach as libertarian paternalism because it is soft, and non-intrusive. Choices are not in practice  blocked off for individuals. If you want to smoke, not save for retirement and choose an inappropriate career then that is still an option for you which you can choose- you will not be forced to anything you consciously don’t want to do –  but you may  merely be  nudged in the right direction to help you do whats best for you (and probably society too) .

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