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News & Views

Choice Architecture

Choice architecture is the most useful part of behavioural economics

Like the title of the book, it’s a nudge.

You don’t argue anyone into anything.

You just set up the architecture so they naturally travel in the direction you want.

That’s really useful for us.

Different choice architecture can dictate totally different conclusions.

I saw it illustrated in a clip from “Yes Minister”.

An opinion poll didn’t give the result Sir Humphrey wanted.

So he said to his assistant “Pop out and commission another opinion poll that shows what we do want it to show.”

His assistant said any poll would show the same results.

Sir Humphrey said “Don’t be ridiculous, we can make an opinion poll say anything we want.”

The assistant asked how they could do that.

Sir Humphrey said “By the questions we ask of course.

Look, you’re a nice young chap, you don’t want to upset anyone. Imagine I’m asking your opinion on the introduction of National Service.

Okay, question one: are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”

The assistant said yes, of course.

Sir Humphrey said “Next question: are you worried about the rise in crime amongst teenagers?”

The assistant said yes he was.

Sir Humphrey said “Do you think there’s a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?”

The assistant said yes there is.

Sir Humphrey said “Do you think young people would welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”

The assistant said yes they would.

Sir Humphrey said “Do you think young people respond well to a challenge?”

The assistant said yes they did.

Then Sir Humphrey paused and asked, “So would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”

The assistant said “Yes. Certainly.”

Sir Humphrey said “Okay, let’s try the same exercise with a completely different set of questions.

First question: are you worried about the danger of war?”

The assistant said yes he was.

Sir Humphrey said “Second question: are you worried about the growth of armaments?”

The assistant said yes.

Sir Humphrey said “Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?”

The assistant said yes of course.

Sir Humphrey said “Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?”

The assistant said yes definitely it was.

Sir Humphrey said “So would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?”

The assistant said “Yes. Certainly.”

Sir Humphrey waited for it to sink in.

Then he said “There you have it, an evenly balanced sample of the population.”

The well-meaning assistant been led to agree with two diametrically opposed views.

Just by agreeing, step by step, with simple commonsense questions.

An example of choice architecture at work.

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