Choice Architecture

There’s a well-known theory in behavioural economics called ‘Nudge’ theory and it looks at ‘Choice Architecture’. In a nutshell, it is a theory that suggests we can lead people to the ‘right’ decision, by changing small actions that can substantially impact the way people behave.

Choice architecture describes how the decisions we make are affected by the layout/sequencing / and range of available choices.

Nudge theory was initially developed for commercial use and you’ll find it used in many places such as coffee shop menus and layouts in supermarkets. It is even used by the government to influence our decisions. For example, take a look at the recent pandemic, we have had to substantially change our behaviour to reduce the spread of the virus. 

The government and behavioural scientists have done this by changing our environments and nudging us to perform behaviours that were previously non-existent. The ‘Happy Birthday’ 20-second hand-washing rule, the ‘Stay home; protect the NHS, save lives’ campaign, hand sanitiser post at the entrance to shops and one way stickers guiding us around stores, are all examples of behavioural nudges designed to change our behaviours.

Nudges are any small part of what makes up our day and our behaviour that can encourage us to do something differently. When you think about it, these ‘nudges’ are everywhere… 

But, we don’t care about that…

Although, it is good to know how our behaviours are influenced when we are out and about in our daily lives.

What we want to know is how can this help us to live a happier life and reduce stress!!

So let’s talk about choice architecture in our homes.

Nudging in the home 

Nudges happen in the home too. To illustrate this I am going to use the example of my beloved kids remembering to eat a sugary treat at lunchtime and forgetting to eat fruit throughout the day ( I was nudged when I saw lots of fruit beginning to turn bad in the fridge). I needed to give my kids a nudge to eat more fruit! The reminders just didn’t seem to be working…

I started to think about why the children would remember to eat a sugary treat at lunchtime but, ‘forget to eat fruit’.

I thought maybe because there was no nudge I would need to do something to remind them.

Removing all sweets from the house seemed a little excessive and a bit unfair. I just wanted to increase their fruit intake and possibly reduce the sugary treats they were eating each day ( we are in a pandemic and they are not exercising as much as they usually would. I think their diet Should reflect this).

So, I decided to capitalize on their ‘magic cupboard’ ( the cupboard where the sweets are kept and which gets magically refilled each evening) and nudge them to eat fruit at lunchtime.

Changing behaviour change with regular nudges

So, what did I do??

I stopped buying treats for the magic cupboard and I bought cake mixes instead. At lunchtime, on the first day, the kids went to the cupboard and found it was bare. 

After the initial shock wore off they went to the fridge and got their sugar fix from fruit.

As my son sat eating his watermelon he told me ‘ the last laugh is on you mum, I like watermelon’. 

That evening my son picked the scones mix and made his scones whilst I prepared dinner. 

The next day at lunch my daughter called out to me as she opened the fruit fridge ‘ look mum I’m eating fruit at lunch’

It’s amazing what a little behaviour nudge can achieve.

This experiment confirmed what I already knew, getting people to adopt new behaviours takes a lot more than just telling them to do so. We need to actively change our environments.

Here are the stages of behaviour change prompted by nudges….

Nudge one: provide a reason to change

For my children to change their behaviour, they needed a compelling reason to change.

I helped them find that reason by removing their surgery lunchtime treats. They were then motivated to change their ways. 

Now you’ve nudged people into wanting to change…

Nudge two: plant alternative behaviours

The next ‘nudge’ comes with planting highly effective alternatives to what they are currently doing. This was eating the fruit for their lunchtime sugar fix.

Nudge three: provide opportunities to practice new behaviours

Each lunchtime follows the same routine, so they have plenty of opportunities to increase their fruit and veg intake and strengthen that behaviour.

Every time a person practices the new behaviour, they strengthen the association between the two events and the habit becomes stronger and stronger until the person comes to unconsciously choose it ( fingers crossed this is the case with eating fruit at lunch instead of a cake bar!!)

Nudge four: give regular feedback

If I want to cement this behaviour change I could keep telling them well done when they reach for a piece of fruit at lunchtime and reinforce the behaviour.

To drive real behaviour change, we need to use ‘nudges’ that push us towards adopting and exhibiting the new behaviour in the long term.

By encouraging this one behaviour change in my home I have managed to reduce stress ( no more nagging to eat fruit daily ) and live a happier life by spending time with my children making cakes and removing them from their screens in the process.

The example I gave was using choice architecture to encourage a healthy eating behaviour but, we can use it for financial planning too. For example, opting into work-based pension schemes and setting up auto savings in our bank accounts. We change our behaviour in this context by saving money first and living off what we have left. We then adjust our spending to meet our budget. Our behaviour is then positively reinforced when we see how much money we have saved at the end of each month and year and it encourages us to continue with that behaviour (to automate savings). 

Do you think choice architecture can help you change some unwanted behaviours for some new healthier ones?

If so, here are the steps you need to follow :

  • Establish the behaviour you want to change
  • Give yourself a reason to change
  • Plant alternative behaviours
  • Encourage yourself to practice these behaviours
  • Find ways to reward yourself after practising the new behaviours 

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