When Nudge Comes to Shove

Ruhani Walia
6 min readMar 20, 2021

While the FBA man may not actually exist behind your laptop camera, big brother does exist.

Not in the same way that George Orwell wrote about years ago. This also isn’t a regurgitated exposé on the trials and tribulations of data protection.

This is about choices.

*Spoiler* We don’t have as much control over our choices as we think.

There is a stark difference between choosing and picking from a pre-determined array.

You’re probably wondering what the semantics are all about.

Let’s imagine you’re in a restaurant. Let’s also imagine we’re not living in a pandemic, and you’re sitting at a lovely booth, mask-free. The nearest waitress drops a menu onto the table and gives you a few minutes to glance it over.

In this case, are you choosing or picking?

If you said the latter, you would be correct.

The menu has a pre-determined list of options. You can pick from the options listed under the appetizers, main courses, desserts etc.

You cannot order what is not on the menu.

You are not choosing what you would like to eat. You are not the chef in charge of creating the menu. Instead, you are picking from a set of options determined by someone or something other than you.

This should illustrate another very important ingredient involved in your choices.

Your choices are shaped by external context.

As I said, you’re not the chef. The chef is the chef and is in charge of creating the context in which your choices operate as soon as you enter the restaurant.

What is central to human behaviour is decision-making from what choices are available to us.

The design of choices available to us, and what is made available in the first place, influences the decisions we make.

On a more meta-level, we often warp our worlds and beliefs to fit what we believe is possible and isn’t.

Decisions operate in the external context I mentioned but also stem from the internal context you provide. The internal context consists of things like value judgements, biases, fears, insecurities etc. All are deeply personal and unique.

A lot of what we decide circles vocabulary like “responsible,” “reckless,” “realistic,” “feasible,” and “worthwhile,” which all ultimately come down to what you define as being “in the realm of possibility.”

What resides in this realm is entirely subjective and based on the experiences we’ve had so far…which are also a result of the design of choices we’ve had in our life.

Really, it’s a continuous cycle.

How do we get out of it? Should we want to?

It depends on if you align with the choice architect.

Revisiting the restaurant analogy, the choice architect is the chef or whoever created the menu.

This is the entity in charge of designing the choice architecture. They are the ones constructing the context I mentioned. This is the person who puts the Hershey’s at eye level and the chocolate coins on the bottom shelf.

The whole concept of choice architecture hinges on that of nudge theory. It basically explains that the design of choices should be based on how people think and decide instinctively and irrationally rather than how authorities believe people think and decide, logically and rationally.

Nudge theory seeks to minimize resistance and confrontation by designing choices in a way that is discreet and indirect.

“Central to the Nudge concept is that people can be helped to both think appropriately and make better decisions by being offered choices that have been designed to enable these outcomes.”

The question now becomes, are your choices entirely up to you?

The truth is that none of them are made in a vacuum of self-serving objectivity but in an environment that is pre-disposed to change your mind about things.

An environment in which you are at the hands of a choice architect’s definition of good and bad.

Choice Architecture of a Store’s Layout

This is what makes me question the true autonomy of choices. A store’s layout or an app’s notification system are designed by people who have the burden of deciding whether the nudges are responsible and can guide choices without restricting them.

The problem with this is that everything is in the eye of the beholder: they ultimately decide what is and isn’t restrictive and what is or isn’t responsible.

Nudges work because people hate being told what to do. We like to take credit for our thoughts and ideas even if they didn’t come from us. We like to think that we come to conclusions all on our own.

In other words, positive reinforcements and indirect suggestions can influence incentives and decisions more than instruction or enforcement.

It also ties into the definition of change since decisions are what lead to this in the first place. Change is enabled by designing choices for people which encourage them to make decisions towards positive helpful outcomes.

It’s a system of gentle encouragement based on an advanced understanding of the human decision-making process.

An example of benefiting from this type of knowledge is organ donation. Several studies have found that countries that avoid active decision-making such as ‘opting-in’ to organ donation have much higher rates of donation.

This is because an automatic opt-in that requires an active opt-out will see far more participants than an automatic opt-out that requires an active opt-in.

The concept of Nudge Theory and Choice Architecture are the fruits of Richard Thaler, which won him the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017.

Thaler and other behavioural economists have proved that when under pressure, people make decisions quickly and based mostly on intuition. These decisions are unconsciously guided by biases.

This can be further explained with the Automatic System and the Reflective System.

The names are quite self-explanatory. According to psychology literature, the Automatic System is what feels instinctive and does not involve much thinking.

For example, flinching when something comes towards you too close, too fast.

The Reflective System is what uses up all the thinking. It is deliberate and has more self-awareness.

For example, answering a math question like “What is 54 x 9?”

These systems are your gut instinct vs. your conscious thought.

The latter is far more subject to context than the first.

At the end of the day, we live in a world full of bias. It doesn’t make sense to expect the contrary of humans and their thought processes.

What this does mean, however, is understanding just how prone to influence we each are, whether we realize it or not.

Hopefully, you can now recognize it a little bit more often and make decisions true to your nature as much as possible.

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