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Architecture of choice: the environment's role in decision making

By Andréa de Paiva



Decision making is a complex process that takes place in an environment filled with subtle influences. When making a decision, people do not act in an isolated vacuum, but in a context where several factors influence their choices, including factors specific to the physical environment. This article explores the concept of "choice architecture", proposed by Richard Thaler and his colleagues in 2009, aiming to highlight how the built environment plays a crucial role in shaping everyday decisions [1].

Arquitetura da escolha: papel do ambiente na tomada de decisão
Arquitetura da escolha: papel do ambiente na tomada de decisão

The term "architecture of choice", coined by Richard Thaler, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017, refers to the design of the context in which decisions are made [1, 2]. The term "choice architect" refers to the person responsible for creating this context. This notion transcends the physical environment and encompasses a broader and more holistic approach, considering space, people and the specific context in which they find themselves.


It is important to highlight that the choices we make are not limited to major decisions, such as purchasing a property. Minor decisions in our daily lives are directly and indirectly influenced by the physical environment. And it is precisely these smaller decisions, to which we pay less attention, that can have a significant long-term impact on many aspects of our lives, including health, relationships and performance. The environment in which we live can influence these choices in remarkable ways.However, it is undeniable that the built environment plays a key role in everyday decisions.


A relevant aspect in this context is how the environment can be designed to encourage healthier behaviors. Architecture can encourage hydration by making water more accessible and attractive, or promote physical activity by creating opportunities for movement [4, 5]. Furthermore, design can facilitate spontaneous social encounters, providing interactions even for the most introverted.

Piano Stairs,  Odenplan subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. Image by KJ Vogelius.
Piano Stairs, Odenplan subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. Image by KJ Vogelius.

For example, imagine an office environment where you want to promote healthy habits among employees. Architects and designers can apply choice architecture in ways that positively influence employee health decisions. Some strategies that must be combined for such a result are: applying Active Design in the conception of layout and accessibility, designing stairs with high visibility and easy access close to entrances and elevators; create spaces for physical activity, such as outdoor lounging areas or installing exercise equipment around the office; position healthy eating options in prominent places, while less healthy options are in less visible areas; create motivational signals, promoting the importance of hydration, physical activity and a balanced diet; and applying Ergonomic Design, encouraging healthy posture and proper movement and preventing sedentary lifestyle and discomfort.


In the midst of this, we cannot ignore that architects and designers have the ability to significantly influence people's choices through the environment they create. By taking a choice architecture approach, they can either encourage or undermine everyday decisions. Through elements such as layout, colors, signage and placement of objects, it is possible to influence behavior in a subtle and positive way.


Such behavior induction should not be confused with "coercion" or "manipulation". This occurs when an influence is exerted in a way that limits a person's freedom of choice, forcing them to act in accordance with the will of another party, often to the detriment of their own genuine interests or desires. The line between subtle inducement and coercion can be a fine one, and context and intent play an important role in determining when inducement crosses that line.


Thaler and his colleagues defend the philosophy of "libertarian paternalism" as an approach to influencing choices without imposing specific outcomes [1]. This implies encouraging people to make choices that they think are best for themselves, rather than imposing a single direction. The architecture of choice aligns with this philosophy, promoting people's autonomy.


While the term "libertarian paternalism" may be controversial, it invites us to consider creating environments that promote healthy habits and better choices. The impact of the environment on people's decisions is undeniable, and this encourages us to reflect on which decisions would be most beneficial and how we can encourage them through design and architecture.


An important reflection that this discussion on choice architecture brings is that architects and designers play a crucial role in creating environments that encourage healthy and autonomous choices. The environment is never neutral, it will always influence its users, whether the architect thinks about it or not. So, better than ignoring this fact, it is to seek to understand in a deeper way how decision-making processes take place and the role of our emotions, our affective memories, our culture and, of course, the physical environment in all of this. Architects and designers play a crucial role in creating environments that encourage healthy, autonomous choices. By considering the power of choice architecture, we pave the way for important reflection on how we can create spaces that promote positive decisions for the well-being of all.


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References:


[1] Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.


[2] Landais, L. L., Damman, O. C., Schoonmade, L. J., Timmermans, D. R. M., Verhagen, E. A. L. M., & Jelsma, J. G. M. (2020). Choice architecture interventions to change physical activity and sedentary behavior: a systematic review of effects on intention, behavior and health outcomes during and after intervention. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 17(1), 47. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-00942-7


[3] Thaler, R. H. Sunstein, C. R. & Balz, J. P.,(2010) Choice Architecture. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1583509 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1583509


[4] Friis, R., Skov, L. R., Olsen, A., Appleton, K. M., Saulais, L., Dinnella, C., Hartwell, H., Depezay, L., Monteleone, E., Giboreau, A., & Perez-Cueto, F. (2017). Comparison of three nudge interventions (priming, default option, and perceived variety) to promote vegetable consumption in a self-service buffet setting. PloS one, 12(5), e0176028. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176028


[5] Boutelle, K. N., Jeffery, R. W., Murray, D. M., & Schmitz, M. K. (2001). Using signs, artwork, and music to promote stair use in a public building. American journal of public health, 91(12), 2004–2006. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.91.12.2004


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