Technology and Choice Architecture

Chris Hornung '18

In the Tommies Unplugged Blog, Studying Distraction Free, I made a brief mention of Dr. Richard Thaler. Dr. Thaler is a Nobel Prize winning economist, who in 2008, coauthored a book with Cass Sunstein titled, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The book discusses how small “nudges” can have large impacts on healthcare, personal finance, and general human behavior. I recommend you read the book for yourself if you get the chance, its insights go far beyond what my paltry description and analysis of its content can provide.

A central topic of the book describes the concept of choice architecture and its applications in our modern world. Choice architecture can be used to help us make better choices like selecting the best life insurance policy. It can also help humans generate less waste, eat healthier, and get more exercise. However, choice architecture, depending on its design, can have serious negative implications on our lives. Of note, poor choice architecture in marketing and technology and software design can cause distraction, loss of productivity, and decreased wellbeing in its consumers.

I have a confession to make. If you are reading this in March 2018 there is a pretty good chance that I have a large role in it. The fact that you are reading this also happens to give a pretty good explanation of choice architecture. The reason you are most likely reading this blog is because you most likely signed up for the 2nd annual Tommies Unplugged Technology Mindfulness Week Tech Free Challenge (that’s a mouthful). In the sign-up sheet for the event, there was a box that read “Unsubscribe from Tommies Unplugged Blog updates”. If you didn’t check the box then your email was added to the Tommies Unplugged MailChimp list and you received an email advertising this blog installment. You clicked the “Read Blog” button which brings you here. The fact that the box said unsubscribe rather than subscribe is an example of choice architecture. More specifically, it is a choice architecture in which you would automatically receive emails from Tommies Unplugged unless you checked the “opt-out” box. This differs from most choice architectures in which you would not receive emails unless you checked the “opt-in” box to be sent blog updates. This may seem like a minute detail but it can have large implications on human behavior. For example, Germany has an opt-in policy for organ donation. In other words, if you want to donate your organs should you get into an accident, you must actually fill out paperwork saying you wish to be an organ donor. With this system in place, Germany has an organ donation consent rate of around 12%. Austria, on the other hand, has an opt-out system in place for organ donation. In this system, an individual that does not want to be an organ donor must fill out paperwork saying they would not like to donate their organs posthumously. With their opt-out system, Austria has an organ donor consent rate of 99%. Likewise, I was able to increase the number of people that read this blog simply by changing the typical “opt-in” to “opt-out”. In essence, these examples just define the dictionary definition of choice architecture: Choice architecture is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision-making (Wikipedia).

If I, with admittedly little knowledge in economics or neuromarketing, was able to grab your attention with such a simple switch of wording, imagine the power large corporations that invest millions of dollars per year into marketing and software design could have in subconsciously shaping your behavior. In one of my previous posts, I talked about Time Well Spent. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I strongly encourage you to open the link in a new tab and watch the video in the post, it will help clarify the negative ramifications of choice architecture. 

I made reference to neuromarketing earlier. It might sound like science fiction but it is actually an emerging field of marketing research that looks to uncover how the human brain responds to marketing to better understand and shape consumer decisions. I think the Time Well Spent video highlights this especially well. Take Netflix for example. The company has literally engineered their software to keep users glued to their screens for the longest amount of time possible. This is great for their bottom line, not so great for people’s. However, when consumers understand how companies design their products and services, they can take steps to make sure that those products and services do not intrude with how they want to live their life. Tommies Unplugged has resources to help you get the most out of technology without its downfalls. Whether using Pocket, downloading an app that tracks how much time you use your phone per day, or utlilizing the Pomodoro technique to avoid distractions while studying or working, you can mitigate the effect negative choice architecture has on your life.

I’d like to throw out a disclaimer. I am not trying to ridicule software companies or large corporations. At the end of the day, I realize that they are trying to sell their products and in a competitive, capitalistic economy, that requires strategic marketing and ingenious product development. However, I think it is also important that customers of these companies understand how their software functions and the implications it can have on their lives. I don’t understand programming enough to go as far as Tristan Harris in saying that I think there should be a Hippocratic Oath for software developers. Like Harris though, I think that large software companies and corporations should be transparent with the way that they design their products so that customers can make informed decisions regarding how they can use those products to be most conducive to their own goals. The bottom line is that we, as consumers, should consume technology, not be consumed by it.

One last thing, it wasn’t my intention to manipulate you into reading this blog. I only wanted to show you how choice architecture can influence the decisions we all make on a daily basis. That said, if you would like to unsubscribe from the Tommies Unplugged Blog updates, all you need to do is click the “unsubscribe” button on the MailChimp email you received. If you found this post interesting and would like to stay on the list, Welcome Aboard! Tommies Unplugged has new posts once a month as well as resources for you 24/7 on our webpage. I hope you find us insightful and useful for your endeavors in school and beyond!

For more information and tips on how to improve your relationship with technology visit the Tommies Unplugged webpage at