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Changing behaviour without our ‘mental’ involvement

Changing behaviour without your ‘mental’ involvement

The term choice architecture was made popular by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler in his book Nudge in 2008. Psychologists and Behavioural economists have always struggled to understand how behaviour can be modified. Appealing to our internal/external motivation by way or rewards and punishment, appealing to our moral sense (it is good for you/family/society/universe), enticing our willpower, addressing our personalities, all have been tried with varying amounts of success. In all these methods the focus was the individual. The belief was that we are rational people and we exercise ‘choice’ in what we do. Most of these methods to change behaviour had varying success because the laziness of man, his innate desire to expend the least amount of energy, the vagueness of willpower, his irrationality was not taken into account. Our behaviour is a function of our personality and environment. While the focus had been on personality, the environment was forgotten.

Change the environment to change behaviour

Choice architecture brought the focus back on the environment in which our behaviour occurs. Since our behaviour is different in the differing environments (children in front of guests, our behaviour in office vs home), if we want a different behaviour from individuals or group of individuals why not create an environment where that desired behaviour is inevitable? No appealing to an individual’s personality, moral fibre, willpower, innate goodness or any of those things that are not always reliable. This resulted in the UK government setting up the Behavioural Insights Team(BIT) and the White House setting up the Nudge Team to help guide governmental policy to mould public behaviour. You can check the various projects initiated by the BIT at

But we knew it a long time ago!

The environmental design works at an individual level, family/household level, school/organizational level and the community level too. It is also cheaper and more effective than the ‘appealing to individuals to change’ method at least wherever possible. If you don’t have junk food at home children are not going to eat it, if you install firewalls in the children’s computer they won’t be able to access sites you think are inappropriate for their age, if there are high road dividers then people will not be able to cross the roads wherever.

While the term got popular only about a decade back, we Indians have been at it for ages. Take a look at the above photograph. On so many Indian roads you will find paintings of religious symbols, images to prevent people from throwing garbage or urinating. Boards, saying “No garbage”, “No urinating here” are far less effective than these paintings. Some people not take any chances to paint symbols of all the common religions in India! We are secular, by the constitution!

Whenever the world (the rest of the world of course) discovers something new, some of us Indians love to say, “We knew that 5000 years back”. For this choice architecture of gods/religious symbols paintings on the wall to prevent ‘nuisance’ I can join the brigade and say, “We had it a long time back!”

Would love to hear where you have come across effective Choice Architecture either in your personal experience or outside it.

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