Every day we make an incredible number of choices, starting from the moment we wake up and lasting until we go to sleep at night. Some of these choices are based upon automatic thinking processes and appear instinctive, such as reaching out for a falling object. Other actions may have started with conscious choices but through continual application of the thought process, these thoughts and accompanying actions have since have become automatised. An example of this would be cleaning ones’ teeth. Decisions about how to clean teeth will start consciously but soon become automatic. There are other decisions that require activating a more conscious and reflective decision making system to make a choice, e.g. whether to watch a movie and which movie to watch.
Choices can be influenced by experiences, circumstances, and relationships. There are many overt and covert attempts to influence choices. From product placement in shops, strategic placement of advertisements through to advice from parents and teachers, choices are being shaped by information and how this is presented. Richard Thaler, an economist from the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein, Professor of Law at Harvard University refer to this as ‘choice architecture’.
In their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Thaler and Sunstein explore how choices are made and the ways in which these choices can be consciously ‘nudged’ in a certain direction by the manner in which information is presented. They outline how government agencies can be ‘choice architects’, by structuring information to influence individuals to make better choices associated with health, safety and energy consumption. Parents and teachers may not realise they are acting as ‘choice architects’ but have much experience ‘nudging’ the choices that youth make. Despite extensive experience in this area, there are still some lessons to be learned about how to be more conscious and reflective in the way information is presented.
It is important to provide options while preserving the freedom for the individual to make a choice. The ‘nudge’ occurs with how the available options are presented; reducing overload by limiting the number of options; providing information that is relevant to making an informed choice, including an understanding of the likely outcome, over time, of the various options. Adolescents are generally more likely to opt for the easier, short-term reward so consequences should be made clear and default positions clearly established. By grouping the attributes of each option, this can assist with rational decision making while reducing cognitive load. Parents and teachers who act as conscious ‘choice architects’ can design information carefully to provide a subtle ‘nudge’ towards making good choices; however it is critical that a ‘nudge’ never becomes a ‘shove’ if students are to take responsibility for their own choices.
© Michele Juratowitch