choice architecture

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Courtesy of computer security provider Lavasoft (spotted by a sharp behavioral graduate student at Booth).

Yes, you can click the grayed-out button on the left and “update” to the free software.


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Snapped across from the Huntington Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia. Hard to tell what’s more human – the sign or its parking lot placement?


One of the many possible answers the Magic 8-ball can give its inquirer is “Ask again later.” A few years ago, the Illinois inspector general applied that idea to help protect children in the state’s child welfare system. No word on a tip of the cap to the Magic 8-ball. (From NYT op-ed).

The Illinois inspector general found that a failure to identify parents’ mental health and substance abuse problems was a common feature in child deaths. Harried caseworkers who had to substantiate a complaint of abuse or neglect didn’t have enough time to thoroughly investigate whether drug addiction and mental illness were involved. When state forms required them to choose yes or no in those first hectic days, they chose no — and often no one came back to help the families. So the inspector general urged the state to give workers another option, one that would indicate a need for continuing assessment in these in-between cases.


Congestion isn’t just a highway problem. It happens on subway systems, too. Zhan Guo, a professor of urban planning and transportation policy at NYU, says that part of this congestion stems from how transportation authorities draw maps of their systems. In his paper, “Mind the Map” (working paper pdf here), Guo looks at the London Underground system and argues that the Tube map “has a tremendous impact on a passenger’s perceptions and his or her usage of the transit system” since “passengers often trust the Tube map more than their own travel experience on deciding the ‘best’ travel path.” Maps are more than two times as influential as actual travel times, even for experienced transit users. The lesson, Guo says, is that maps themselves can become cost-effective ways to ease planning and operation problems.

Transit maps are not scaled models of physical reality. In the London Underground map, for instance, the correlation between actual distance and transit map distance is just .22. Distance in the Underground map represents just 4 percent of the variation of the actual spatial distance between stations.

This distortion affects travelers’ perceived options of final locations, route choices, and the attractiveness of different routes. The biggest misperception is conflating transit map distance with actual travel time. Transfer stations that look “convenient” can be mobbed by crowds, leading to long wait times. Train trips that look “long” on a map can actually be reached more quickly on foot. Ultimately, travelers “(mis)trust a transit map more than their actual experience; they often take a path that looks shorter on the system map but is longer in reality compared with alternative paths.”

Here is one particular example on the Tube:

There are two alternative paths traveling from Paddington to Bond Street station, path 1 transferring at Baker Street and path 2 transferring at Notting Hill Gates (Map a). Path 2 is about 15% slower by in-vehicle time than path 1, and the Notting Hill Gate station is to the opposite direction of the destination Street (Map b). We would expect that few passengers would choose path 2. However, more than 30% of passengers chose path 2, probably because, on the schematic tube map, path 2 is about 10% shorter than path 1, and Notting Hill Gate station is shown to the south not west of Paddington (Map b).

How should planners adjust maps recognizing the influence they have on travelers’ choices?

There are lots of options. They could redraw maps to better reflect actual distance or actual travel times. They could simply post travel times or draw attention to popular, meaning crowded, transfer stations. Planners could take the focus off individual stations and onto areas. They might note “hot” zones where crowds often form. Travelers who don’t mind a bit of inefficiency in their routes might be willing to take “quieter,” if longer, trips – especially if they have a better chance at scoring a seat. Alternatively, planners might actually remove maps and drive customers to other travel planning options, such as a mobile phone, that can direct them to the most efficient route when travelers type in information about their trip. If the map is always going to influence travelers’ decisions, maybe the best strategy is to lessen travelers’ reliance on any visual version of it?

Addendum: Tim Waters observes: “Its amazing how close everything is. When you are in the tube, the distances seem so much further. I remember a few years ago getting the tube between Leicester Square and Covent Garden! The tube map although great for planning journeys really does distort distances.” Hat tip: Martin Delaney

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If so, they don’t seem to be opting out of behavioral targeting when given the chance. Ad Age reports:

Since last year, ad organizations in the U.S. have been running a campaign meant to stiff-arm regulatory efforts of the sort that went into effect last week in Europe, where companies will now have to get permission from consumers before dropping cookies onto their computers. The centerpiece of the campaign to convince Congress and the FTC that self-regulation is good enough is the “Ad Option Icon” placed in some ads, pointing to information about behavioral targeting and offering a way to opt out of it.

Thus far it’s received relatively low response, a rare case where low click-through on an ad is positioned as a positive thing. The click-through rate is just 0.002% and of those people who do follow the link, only 10% opt out of the ads, according to DoubleVerify, which recently won a contract from the industry trade group to license the icon for ad clients. Two other companies, Evidon and TRUSTe, also provide the service. Evidon, which has the longest set of data, is seeing click-through of 0.005% with only 2% opting out from 30 billion impressions.

The Nudge blog has long been interested in “one click” opt-outs. While admirable, the Ad Option Icon is not a single click. As part of the regulatory debate, companies might want to explore the possibility of making opting-out a bit easier. If the barriers already seem low, they are – but you aren’t thinking like a behavioralist.

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Since our Groupon posting, we’ve gotten a few comments about opt-out emails. One interesting example, courtesy of a FONB (friend of the Nudge blog), comes from the Asian chain restaurant Pei Wei. Customers can sign up for “email alerts.” If they want to unsubscribe, Pei Wei takes them to a screen that directs them to “uncheck the box to unsubscribe.” Is Pei Wei is trying to do customers a service by cutting down on the extra click they have to make? Or is just trying to confuse customers who don’t read the page closely and react the way unsubscribe works on most other sites? Either way, “it definitely took me a minute to figure out exactly what I needed to do to unsubscribe,” the reader writes.

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The photo above comes to us from Austin, Texas. Notice anything odd? Here’s a hint: The blue bin is for recycling; the green bin is for garbage.

The blue bin is a lot bigger.

The recycling-bin-to-garbage-bin ratio in Austin stands in stark contrast to ratios in most American cities. For example, Alexandria, Virginia, provides residents with a garbage bin (shown below) that is nearly three times the size of the recycling bin.

Austin’s Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) garbage program is a great example of implementing physical choice architecture and providing incentives for residents to recycle. It’s similar to the program in Fort Collins, Colorado, that a Nudge blog reader told us about last year. The program allows residents to choose the size of garbage bin that best fits their needs. The smaller the bin, the less the resident pays. Residents are encouraged to recycle more through the city’s single-stream recycling program (blue bin) and pay for the smallest garbage bin that will accommodate their weekly waste. A 90-gallon bin cost about twice the price of the smallest 30-gallon bin. Austin will roll out an even smaller garbage bin (21-gallon) soon.

The bigger bin, smaller bin approach isn’t unique to cities. The The Texas Facilities Commission (TFC) is in the process of implementing miniMAX, a centralized trash/recycling program, in all TFC-managed facilities. The program will affect over 20,000 state employees, providing them recycling bins with attachable mini-bins for garbage. TFC explains the program:

To increase recycling rates in an office environment, where the vast majority of refuse is recyclable, the small size of the mini-bin acts as a visual yield sign for employees when they discard something.

Hat tips: Nelda, Stacy Guidry, Levi Lainhart

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“You know the old adage that the customer’s always right?” he said. “Well, I kind of think that the opposite is true. The customer is rarely right. And that is why you must seize the control of the circumstance and dominate every last detail: to guarantee that they’re going to have a far better time than they ever would have had if they tried to control it themselves.”

Answer here. (Obviously, this choice architecture advice is not always recommended.)


Google’s auto-suggest is an interesting little contraption. If you type one letter of the alphabet into google’s search bar, in every case the first suggesting you’ll get is a product or a company (Amazon, Best Buy, Ebay, Facebook, etc.) C, D, and W are exceptions – Craigslist, Dictionary, and Weather. Chase Bank, Dell Computers, and WalMart really should be irritated.

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Nudge blog correspondent Meicheng Shi reports on an interesting case where the standard “Look Right” signs (painted all over streets in Britain and other left-hand traffic countries) failed to prevent accidents. She offers some thoughts on why “Look Right” is not a one-size-fits all solution and some of the many versions of the “Look Right” signs she’s spotted around New Zealand.

In November 2010, the city of Wellington, New Zealand opened a new bus route through Manners Mall, formerly an exclusively pedestrian walkway. The city council spent $70,000 to promote the change: distributing safety fliers and posters, assigning staff to patrol the route, and even implementing a few clever nudges.

Giant displays stand prominently along the street, reminding pedestrians of oncoming buses.

Countless “Look Right” signs are painted onto the curb, drawing on behavioral principles of frequency and immediacy—pedestrians are repeatedly exposed to the message, which they see just prior to crossing the street.

Some signs even employ humor to increase the salience of the message.

In spite of all this, since November, six pedestrians have been hit by buses while crossing the street, mostly near Manners Mall. Why are these nudges seemingly ineffective?

Habit no doubt acts as a major obstacle—pedestrians accustomed to Manners Mall being free of cars are probably also used to crossing without looking. Even with well-designed nudges, this behavior may be difficult to change.

Yet one hypothesis is that the nudges implemented by the city council are not fully exploiting a powerful behavioral concept: loss aversion. Because the existing nudges focus on positive reinforcement, the potential consequences of crossing without looking may not be salient enough to pedestrians. A Nudge blog post from last March about the Wadala Railway Station offers a good, albeit gruesome, case of consequences made salient.

In a more subtle example, a curbside sign in a different part of Wellington reads, “Stop Look Live.”

Perhaps tellingly, no pedestrians have been hit by cars here. To be fair, this street was never a pedestrian-only walkway. However, upon reading the sign, you can’t help thinking, “If I stop, look and live, what happens if I don’t stop and look?”


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