Choice Architecture and Environmental Design

I am obsessed with how our environment can shape behavior.  A change in surroundings can inspire growth, force us to develop new techniques for thriving, and require that we re-examine the values upon which we construct our life. 

When making drastic life shifts (of the type that I seem to most enjoy) the changes we must make are mostly unforeseen. When moving to a different country I could be sure only that change would be necessary, but not the manner of what would shift. This is exciting yet chaotic. It is analogous to random genetic mutations; some may prove advantageous to an individual, while most provide little benefit to the next generation and can even bring harm.

I deeply enjoy the dynamic quality that major course changes bring to my life but understand that I am often forced to compromise, at least for a time, my health values. As I settle into a new environment, I craft new patterns built on my core principles.

This relationship between actions and environment is a two-way street. We are not simply doomed to act in accordance with the world around us. We can alter our environment to encourage and ensure that it leads us down paths of our choosing. Small shifts to our daily surroundings can lead to profound and positive changes in our daily choices.

Choice Architecture

Coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, choice architecture refers to a system of presenting choices and their individual attributes in a manner that leads the chooser toward their best interest without limiting their freedom of choice. This essentially means crafting the number, variety, presentation of attributes, and presentation of options in a way that encourages a specific choice. 

As with most psychological and neurological research about human choice and preference, the choice architecture phenomenon can serve both productive and manipulative outcomes. The fields of marketing and advertising constantly seek new methods of influencing purchasing decisions and app/social media designers constantly seek new ways to demand more attention from you.

The below image shows a very crafty method to encourage upgrading anti-virus software rather than updating the current version. The attributes chosen for the list are such that all apply to the upgrade. We could easily choose a list of attributes that apply more favorably to the simple update; “no additional cost” comes to mind. Notice also that the image of the upgrade appears larger than the update option. Finally, the box for “update” appears greyed-out and un-clickable despite offering a valid link. The entire architecture of this presented choice directs us to purchase the upgrade.

Organ Donors.png

Studies show that choice architecture can positively influence decisions as well. Car buyers are nudged toward more practical options simply by listing out the practical options and aggregating the less practical attributes into a single quality. If the material on a given car lists out all of the “practical” attributes such as gas mileage, safety record, warranty, and reliability and collects all the extras such as stereo, sun roof, leather seats, and GPS into a single description such as “stylish,” consumers make much more practical choices. 

The methods in which we can alter choice structure to encourage specific ends are seemingly endless, but one method strikes as particularly important to help us harness this phenomenon for our personal health: default options.

We Always Default

The study of choice architecture reveals a human proclivity toward defaults. We can define a default option as a predetermined choice that a person must take active steps to change. Imagine the default settings on any app or piece of software. These are the group of settings that are possible to alter yet only a small percentage of users take the requisite time and effort to change. Choice architecture can present options in a similar manner.

The most telling observance of how default options can affect choice outcome comes from a 2004 study of percentage of organ donors in different countries.1 Researchers expected to find a varied spectrum of participation yet found that most countries fell into two groups: extremely high participation and extremely low participation. They first looked to cultural and societal factors such as population, affluence, religion, and communal ties but found no relationship that explained their findings.

They found that an individual’s choice had very little to do with societal factors (drastically different results for neighboring countries like Denmark and Sweden) or even an individual’s personality (empathy, selfishness, etc.). The drastic changes in outcome came simply from the type of form that each country used for organ donor participation. 

The countries with low sign-up rates used an “opt-in” form that requires the individual to actively choose to participate. The countries with extremely high rates use an “opt-out” form that assumes participation as the default choice unless an individual actively checks the box to opt-out. The results prove that proclivity for the default option far outweighs any personal tendencies a person might have.

Neither system removes the freedom of choice, yet the opt-out strategy use choice architecture to encourage high participation. 

The Willpower Myth

The organ donor study teaches us about a vital piece of our nature: the manner in which a set of options are presented controls our choice far more than our personal leanings. This is deeply demoralizing at first glance. Regardless of your level of willpower, your environment conspires to dictate your choices.

While true, this fact does not remove our ability to own our daily choices. Environment may control (in part) our choices, but we can shape our environment to suit choices that align with our values. Choice architecture does not remove our personal agency, it simply moves it further upstream.

I almost always have ice cream when I visit my parents. I am not actively considering whether to eat ice cream or not, I am simply responding to the environment: the availability of ice cream. When I shop for myself, my buying decisions are dictated by my personal value structure rather by choosing a specific meal. As a result, I have only healthy options at home. Each healthy meal is not a testament to my amazing willpower, only a response to the environment that I crafted.

At my parents’ house, I have to “opt-out” of ice cream while at my house if I want to eat something unhealthy I have to “opt-in” to go out and find it.

Environmental Design

Knowing how our surroundings direct our choices, we can design our environment around the principles we wish to live by. We can find simple changes that have profound effects, especially in the long-term. 

I first noticed how infrequently I ate ice cream once I began shopping for myself. My affinity had not diminished (I always scarf some down after dinner with my parents) but the availability had changed. I was shopping almost exclusively at a farmer’s market for produce and a butcher for meat. Ice cream and other tempting treats simply were not available and thus never made their way into my home environment. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my choice of food purveyors designed my home eating environment for the better. 

Now understanding how significantly this choice architecture affects our eating habits, we shop only around the outer ring of the supermarket. This is a much discussed yet highly effective strategy as the outer edges of most supermarkets hold all of the fresh options like produce, meat, eggs, and nuts, while the processed and packaged foods fill the center aisles.

When working as a full-time engineer, I packed my gym bag, including single portions of post-workout supplements, each night and placed it next to my work bag. In the morning, I only had to pick it up with my work stuff, no opt-in required. I kept my gym bag on the passenger seat of my car, rather than the trunk or backseat, further removing opt-in boundaries. Finally, I chose a gym for the proximity to my office rather than my home to not allow myself too much time to contemplate my workout. All of these relatively minor factors conspired into a pattern of essentially never skipping a workout. I designed my environment for the default option of working out. Skipping a workout became aberrant, and thus, rare. I almost never actively opted-out of training and simply followed the default choice I had already laid out.

In this example, I still had to take responsibility for the decision to workout. I still had to make the effort (albeit, quite minimal) to craft my environment to instill that pattern. However, I removed the responsibility to choose in the moment. I all but eliminated the requirement for willpower, although willpower will always be the key link that turns theory (especially those presented here) into action.

All other factors being equal, we tend to favor short-term comfort and ease over long-term benefit. In the moment, opting-in to a training session means choosing a time commitment and discomfort. But, the thought of working out tomorrow is entirely positive. A few minutes today spent designing my environment requires very little willpower as I am not actively choosing to commit in the moment.

I carry a backpack everywhere I go and use it for a number of minor, yet profound, methods for choice architecture. I keep my phone and wallet in my backpack rather than on my person to require more steps to retrieve them and thus more consideration before spending and phone use. When I truly need them, I feel no extra inconvenience. I also keep my Kindle and journal in my backpack. Having these tools available increases the likelihood that I’ll decide to read or write when I have a spare moment rather than defaulting to mindful social media scrolling. Finally, I keep small therapy tools and grip trainers in my bag. I never have to opt-in to dig them out of a bin in the closet. They are always with me and thus see far more frequent use.

Other great strategies include:

  • Store unhealthy food at the back of cabinets/refrigerator and healthier options at the front. You are most likely to grab the first thing you see
  • Keep the TV in a cabinet that you can shut and a good book on the coffee table. Making the TV center of attention in a room encourage excessive watching. Add a different option and an extra step between you and TV.
  • Keep a bowl of nuts or fruit on your desk at work. With these in view you’ll be more like to snack on these rather than the ever-present treats at the office.

Constantly seek ways to design your environment around the type of choices you’d like to see yourself make. I bet you can craft several minor shifts that will have profound effects on your daily routines.


1. Johnson, Eric J., and Daniel G. Goldstein. "Defaults and donation decisions." Transplantation 78, no. 12 (2004): 1713-1716.

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