Choice Architecture

I was so embarrassed. 

I walked right into the door; not through an open door, but directly into a closed door, hard. My knee struck the bottom half of the door with a loud bang, my head nearly bouncing off the glass where the hand-written sign clearly read, “Pull to open door.” The whole store choice architectureturned and looked when they heard the loud thud of my knee hitting the door that I had pushed hard against the jam. I could feel the color drain from my face as I slowly looked at the cashier, who smiled and said . . . . .

Choice architecture is the study, not of the decisions we make, but how those decisions are presented to us. Restaurants know that a line on a menu about cheesecake is worth much less money to a diner than having the cheesecake brought to the table side on a beautiful cart and showcased. Even if the cheesecake is exactly the same, as a rule we pay more for the presentation. In this example the restaurant has executed perfect choice architecture. They have built the presentation in such a way that we are more likely to choose what they want us to have. 

And I think it’s fantastic. 

Let me explain with another example plucked from the dining profession.

Sommeliers

A sommelier is someone who tells you what your wine will taste like before you buy it. Then, when you pay much more for a fancy table, fancy bottle, and fancy description you can say, “oh the sommelier was right, this does have a nutty after-taste,” even though countless scientific studies have proven that a lot of the taste of wine is imaginary. The flavor of wine comes as much from our expectations as the grapes from which it was made. So the choice architecture plays a huge role in the entire experience.

Or think of it from a 21st century perspective.

The last bit of software you bought solved a problem yes, but you paid more for it than for the other option because you had heard of it before, the purchase process was simple and the website was beautiful. You didn’t even shop the competition. If you had, you probably wouldn’t have chosen them anyway because their website is clunky, no one you know uses them and it was a lot easier to go with something you are familiar with than to research another option. The choice architecture guided your decision. You went with the simple choice, which is what most of us do.

We hire people to make our decisions for us.

Mostly because they are better at it than we are. 

Those people that we hire to make choices for us create great choice architecture around our decisions. They arrange and situate our choices to help us choose what they want us to have. 

And it’s great. 

Here’s why.

Snake Oil

On it’s face it sounds horrible. Someone who manipulates the system to get us to choose what they want us to use, buy or have seems shady at best. They are using the same process snake oil salesmen used 100 years ago, right? Well not really. The snake oil salesman tricked people into buying vegetable oil that didn’t do what he promised it would do.

He lied.

But the cheesecake from the table side is delicious, and the software does work. We aren’t being sold, in most cases, a complete lie. We are getting something for the money we spend. The choice architects are not con-men. They are creating expectations for their own product when they dress it up. And unlike the snake oil salesman, they are still around hours, months even years after you buy. They field your comments or service their product for you after the purchase, which the snake oil salesman never did.

Expectations

Good choice architects present their product as having a higher value than their competition because they know customers can be disagreeable at times. They add options, tweak the light and clean up the presentation to raise our expectations of their work. And often, they raise the price. Yes it makes them more money, but it also elevates what you expect from the product. This makes you more discerning, more demanding but also more appreciative. By presenting simple, beautiful, higher-priced options they are taking the guess work out of our decisions, and we pay more for that service.

We have hired them to make our decisions for us.

Plus you really do think the wine has a nutty aftertaste when the sommelier says it will. Your expectations guide your reality. When you expect the outcome your mind makes you think it’s true. In this article from Psychology Today, David DiSalvo explains this placebo effect. He explains that when a choice architect prices a bottle of wine at $50 and another at $10, we think the $50 bottle of wine tastes better, even if they are both the same wine. It’s a psychological nuance we all have. We anticipate value defined by, among other things, purchase price.

But wait, if we think the wine tastes better, doesn’t it actually taste better?

Your Reality

No one can take away the experience that the choice architect has given us of a better tasting wine, even if all she did was raise the price on the bottle. The wine does taste better, so she did us a favor. We hired her to make our choice for us, and in return she gave us better tasting wine.

It happens every day. We hire someone to help us make a better choice, and usually they do.

Unless you are waking out of the door in a specific store in my home town that has a round handle for pushing and a flat plate for pulling.

Opening Doors

For over 40 years now I have hired people to train my brain that round handles on doors are for pulling and flat plates on the same doors are for pushing. They have done a fabulous job making the decision to push or pull a door a simple transaction for me. For the last four decades I have not stopped at every door I encountered, examined the jam, looked for instructions and then made my choice. It has always been a simple event.

The choice architects in the door opening business have been very proficient and consistent in my life. So proficient that any hand-written sign on the door goes completely unnoticed by me as I confidently stride through a skill I have mastered thanks to the universal standards set forth by our choice architect friends who engineer the door experience.

There could be a flashing neon sign, with elephants doing cartwheels and dollar signs saying “don’t push this door!!” It would be overshadowed by the years of Pavlovian training my brain has been through. It surprises me that anyone would think that writing “Pull to choice architectureopen door” on a piece of paper would fix the problem of the wrong handled door.

The Language of Choice

In fact I would guess that most people of every race, creed and denomination speak the same door opening language as I do. In fact I know they do. I know they do because psychology says they do. I know they do because marketing 101 explains they do. And I know they do because when I could feel the color drain from my face as I slowly looked at the cashier, he smiled and said . . . it happens all the time.

I fired my first choice architect today.

If we want to have any influence with the people around us, we have to understand choice architecture. We must have a sense of how people make decisions. Writing a sign and sticking it to the door was purely a waste of time, nothing more. It was an exercise in futility because the sign never intercepted my conscious during the transaction, and I’m not the only one.

It Happens All the Time

The cashier said, “it happens all the time.” If it happens all the time, that means the sign isn’t working! The sign isn’t working because no one looks for directions before opening a door. This is choice architecture at it’s purest. The choice to pull or push open a door comes solely from the shape of the handle on the door, nothing else.

So when no one buys your product, listens to your talk or reads what you wrote, it isn’t because they are screwed up. It probably isn’t because your product, speech or writing is bad either. Often we lose influence because we get the architecture of the choice wrong.

If what you are offering is of any value to others, you owe it to them to understand choice architecture, even if all your are doing is helping them open a door the right way.

The Case for Disagreeableness; the “Turn the Other Cheek” Myth

Should people turn the other cheek? For the next 1000 words you will disagree with me.

In the sleepy little town of Snowflake, Arizona (you read it right; Snowflake, Arizona) a man named Joey molested a student in the locker room of the high school after a weights class. Just a few short months later, another man named Bryce walked into the local bank, stoleturn the other cheek $30,010.00 from the business in which he was a partner, after stealing a $10,516 trailer and forging the title into his name.

When both cases were reported, it was nearly impossible to persuade the appropriate leadership to take any action. The leadership in the company turned a blind eye to the theft of over $40,000 and the school leadership flatly refused to call the police on the molester.

Taking Action

When action was finally taken against both men, the townspeople were in an uproar . . . against the people who called the proper authorities! The calls were, “how could you send Joey to prison?” and, “don’t you know a lawsuit could ruin Bryce’s life?”

These anecdotes may portray the town as full of horrible thieves and morally bankrupt people, but it’s quite the opposite. The town is largely LDS, a branch of Christianity with some of the strictest rules concerning behavior this side of the Menonites and the Amish.

The town is full of very kind people who believe that honesty and truthfulness are next to Godliness. You would like visiting Snowflake. You would like it more if you knew someone there. A drive through the town reveals beautiful homes, clean streets and waving neighbors. The populous understands completely that molestation and theft are wrong. And yet these crimes went almost completely ignored. How did these good people see the accounts of these actions, and turn a blind eye?

Disagreeableness

The answer is disagreeableness. 

But not how you think.

Most psychologists categorize human personality into 5 factors. They are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The acronym OCEAN is often used as a reminder. Kendra Cherry outlined what are called the Big 5 in her April 2018 article in verywellmind.com where she explains that each trait is a range, or spectrum. She says. . . 

pastedGraphic.png-It is important to note that each of the five personality factors represents a range between two extremes. For example, extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion. In the real world, most people lie somewhere in between the two polar ends of each dimension.-

Where a person lands within the range of each category tells us a lot about that person. I’m sure you can think of someone you know who is extremely introverted, and their counterpart who is the life of the party. Strictly based on those personality traits, I can quickly assess that your introverted friend is quieter than your extrovert amigo. They are also much more calm. These are the traits of those respective factors.

Agreeableness

Then there is agreeableness. It sounds more like a positive personality trait rather than a spectrum. Shouldn’t we all want to rank as high as possible on the agreeable spectrum?

The answer is absolutely not. 

I’m sure you don’t agree with me at this moment. But after I describe the dimensions of agreeableness to you, you will be certain I am wrong.

Agreeableness encompasses attributes such as kindness, cooperation and trust. People who rank high on the agreeableness scale are said to care more about people other than themselves while their low-ranking counterparts are more competitive. They care less how others feel and have little trouble insulting those around them. 

So why would anyone want to be disagreeable? Why be the person who insults their peers?

Because it can be the kindest thing we do.

That’s Enough

Joey pinned down a younger, smaller, weaker student. Prior to the commencement of any felonies a very agreeable weights coach named Art walked onto the scene of the large, strong adult man holding down the younger student against his will and said, “that’s enough.” 

Then he left.

He abandoned the victim at the moment the victim needed him the most. Art was much too agreeable to intervene.

When the victim told his parents they immediately went to the school. Larry, the principle said, “that’s just boys being boys.” Larry was too agreeable to cause a ruckus.

Where Was The Principle?

The family went to the police who conducted an investigation and charged Joey with multiple felonies. The question from the investigator was, “Why did the parents have to call us? Where was the principle?” The answer, he was busy being agreeable.

When Hollace, the Superintendent was forced to take action against the coach who turned his back on the victim, he gave Art one day off before the Thanksgiving holiday. Hollace was just to agreeable to do much more.

turn the other cheekWhen the community came together to take a stand, the result was a group that raises money for the school. When pressed as to why they didn’t fight to have Art fired they said, “we don’t want to do anything negative.” The same school that let down one of their students, the same faculty that flatly refused to take action was rewarded by the community with proceeds from bake sales and car washes. The town was too agreeable to disrupt the status quo.

Leaving Town

The victim and his family left town. The harassment and vandalization they received from a few of Joeys friends went unpunished and was more than they cared to handle. The townspeople and their Christian beliefs were just to agreeable to stand up against the aggressors.

One of the characterizations of Christianity is described as turning the other cheek, a phrase borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount. It has been used to describe incredibly kind acts, like the kind treatment of POWs in Communist Korea. In largely Christian societies this act of agreeableness is highly regarded. But it is not something that is universally taught in the New Testament the way it is interpreted now. In Matthew 5:39, during the famed Sermon, Jesus says, “if a man strike you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well.” 

Turn The Other Cheek

But the sermon is wrought with metaphor. In the same sermon Jesus said, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” and likened good works of men to light. It is not a section of the Bible that can be taken literally. Aquinas wrote the following regarding the turn the other cheek passage.

“To interpret the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount literally is to misunderstand it. This injunction signifies rather the readiness of the soul to bear, if it be necessary, such things and worse without bitterness to the attacker.” 

It has been explained that Jesus was not teaching Christians to lay down in the face of evil, rather to stand up to evil while resisting the urge to hate the evildoer. Turn the other cheek is not a charge to cowardice. It is a call for self-control while fighting evil. In my book SWAY, I laid out the influence of those on the autism spectrum (very convincingly I must say), but their influence does not come from weakness. It comes from strength in their convictions.

Payroll

When Bryce stole over $40,000 he was mad at his business partner, John. The week prior Bryce insisted the company make his friend Scott a third partner. Bryce explained that he wasn’t comfortable moving forward without Scott as partial owner. John refused to bring Scott on. So Bryce asked the accountant, L’Erin how much money was in the account. She explained there was $35,000 but a $5000 bill was due, plus payroll for the week. 

Bryce, in his fit, explained to L’Erin he was cleaning out the account. He was putting all of the company money in his personal account and he would pay her from that account. L’Erin was just too agreeable to say no.

Unfortunately Bryce stole his partner John’s paycheck and did not give it back. Nor did he pay the crew that was working the week prior. Because that crew was John’s sons, who were filling in for Bryce and his sons while they were on vacation at the beach. Bryce stole the paychecks of his partner and his partners sons and L’Erin never made a peep, because that would be disagreeable.

Just A Reaction

Curt, the project manager also knew about the stolen money. Bryce paid him with a personal check as well. When asked why he didn’t say anything to anyone about what was happening, his answer was, “Oh, that was just Bryce’s reaction.” Curt was just to agreeable to make waves.

We value agreeableness. The guy who never says anything negative and the lady who always has a compliment hold a special place in our hearts, as they should. It is right and good that we value those behaviors. It is a heuristic we use to gauge each other. 

But we have to pay attention to context.

Turning the other cheek means standing up to wrong without hating the wrongdoer.

It is a lesson I am learning while I try to curtail my anger towards a man who assaulted my sons friend and another who stole my sons paychecks. I do not struggle with the standing up portion, it is the other part that is hard for me. I look forward to the day when I automatically get this right.

But today it is hard.

What It Takes

Agreeableness has a place, probably in most situations. But it takes a level of disagreeableness to make change. Steve Jobs was disagreeable enough to disrupt the idea of what a phone was. Gutenberg had enough disagreeableness to change how we record information. Disagreeableness is mandatory to force good onto evil. It took disagreeableness to fight for civil rights, stop the charge of Hitler and even for Jesus to fight against the evils of the first century.

So why would anyone want to be disagreeable?

Because in order to stop bad things, we have to stand up to bad things, which takes a level of disagreeableness. When Art was too agreeable to step in it was cruel, not kind. When L’Erin was too agreeable to stop or report theft it was a felony, not friendliness. 

Why be the person who insults their peers?

Because we have to call out wrong when we see it, and calling someone a thief or a child molester is an insult.

 Even when it’s true.