Our Own Devices

Considering how much of our flow of information is moderated by a small collection of very specific gadgets (always, but now more than ever!), I’m surprised at how easily we avoid choice architecture when it comes to them.

“Choice architecture,” by the way, is a neat concept from the world of behavioral economics. Here it is in a nutshell: people buy items that are on the eye-height shelves more than they buy items that are on the bottom shelf, all else being equal. You can go from a 12% organ donor rate to a 99% organ donor rate, even if both systems are totally voluntary, just by changing whether the default is “opted in” or “opted out.”

So “choice architecture” is changing the defaults about our lives – not removing choices, but restructuring them. It’s putting the candy in a difficult-to-reach back corner of your cabinet, out of sight, while putting the healthy foods in the front of the eye-level shelf in your refrigerator. It’s putting your bike in the garage in such a way that you’d have to move it out of the way to access your car.

In my case last month, it was deleting the mobile app versions of certain social media sites I used from my phone. I didn’t delete my accounts or anything. I could still access those sites via browser. But that’s a lot less convenient than clicking the app button – and it worked. In the time it would take me to access the sites by browser, I’d remember why I didn’t want to in the first place. It was using inconvenience as a habit-breaker.

It can work in reverse, too. I genuinely read more when I have a convenient e-reader, so that’s very nice to have. In fact, by making sure I have a nice, new-model Kindle and a somewhat crappy phone with little customization effort put in, I’m more likely to indulge in genuine reading than mindless scrolling.

The thing about these little nudges is you can do them without much internal resistance. Pulling bad habits up by the root, going “cold turkey,” often gets met with a huge outcry from whatever negative part of you was fed by that habit. As a result, sometimes that voice wins and we don’t do anything at all. But you can trick that voice, a little – nudge by nudge.

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