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The Elements of Choice: Why The Way We Decide Matters

Book Review 📕

Decision Scientist, Eric J. Johnson’s 3rd book, The Elements of Choice is filled with takeaways every marketer needs to know.

Choices are often decided for you, if you like it or not.

Why is this? Choice architecture.

Whenever we are posed with a choice, our inner workings go through an elaborate process that most of us never notice. During this process, we are influenced by subtle features that have been designed (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not) that will make the differences in one choice over another.

This book goes beyond the familiar concepts of defaults and nudges and dives into questions every choice architecture must answer. Such as:

  • How many options to add to a choice?
  • How do you present these options? In what order?
  • How how do you take into account human nature?

Whether you are looking to help a student pick the right school or showcase how to invest in your retirement. Choice architecture is everywhere and you must be cognizant of the unappreciated levers that we are often unaware of.

Key Takeaways:

#1: Why The Way We Shape Choices Matter

Defaults are a widely known element of designing choice architectures, but they aren’t the only tools in the toolkit.

Decision designers are tasked with designing choice architectures and throughout the build they must decide the right number of options and furthermore what is the default option if people don’t make a choice.

These two choices influence each other. Having more options may make choosing the default more attractive.

Poorly designed choice architectures can hinder the user in a few different ways.

The first way is through sludge. Sludge is summarized as “using choice architecture to make it harder for the chooser to do what is best in their interest.” For example, if someone wants to opt-out of being tracked by cookies, if the decision designer makes it difficult to do so, that is sludge.

The second is a phrase coined by Harry Brignull, and that is through dark patterns. Dark patterns are elements in design that influence a chooser to select options they did not mean too. For example, signing up for a free trial without realizing it comes with a year long commitment. Usually the decision designer is making these decisions easier for the chooser to make, knowing it is not in the choosers best interest.

Now let’s discuss three key aspects in shaping choices.

The Plausible Paths of Choice Architectures

The term plausible paths is inspired by the initial decisions we are faced with when we come to a decision point. For example, imagine you land on a website’s homepage. There are many ways you can go from there (contact us, blog, etc.), and those are plausible paths.

Another good example of plausible paths come when you are walking. When walking we do not continually reassess our choice of a path. We are usually doing other things like talking with a friend or thinking about something that might have just occurred. This means the plausible path is sticky (the fist choice has more inertia behind it).

When you choose a plausible path, the decision designer has already influenced that action (what information you considered and what you ignored).

It turns out that when making a decision, people are present-biased about expanding effort. This means their perceptions of effort regarding the choice are extremely important.

Choice architectures can make choice paths easier with fluency. Fluency is the “initial and subjective feeling we have about the ease of taking a particular plausible path.” To establish a very fluent plausible path, means that nothing gets in the way of the task at hand. Fluency can come from many aspects on how choices are presented and can be easily manipulated. Fonts are specifically fluent, as it does not change the information presented but simply changes how hard it is to read the information. Also, converting numbers to words makes them less fluent (15% is easier to read than fifteen percent).

Building Preferences For Your Users

The way your information is presented within a choice, has the biggest affect on a user. For example, a study performed by the University of Iowa, split a group of participants into two and presented them with the same information showcased in two different ways.

The first group was presented a package of meat that said “25 percent fat” and the other group was presented with a package that said “75 percent lean.” It was found that the second group found the meat to be higher quality, less greasy, and better tasting. Simply using the words fat and lean had an effect on the group.

Many of our choice preferences are not constructed, but rather come from memories, especially those memories that are easy to recall. If a decision designer can draw the choosers attention to a certain memory, they can influence their choice.

Setting Goals When Building Your Choice Architecture

All choice architectures are a conversation between the designer and the chooser.

A good choice architecture must be:

  • Fluent
  • Accurate

The main goal of your architecture is not to get people to choose one particular outcome, but making sure the user “finds the right box”.

#2: Decisions by Defaults

Defaults work by utilizing the effects of three channels.

First, defaults make choices easier. Pre-selecting an option that is most popular allows the chooser to take minimal effort to keep this selection.

Second, defaults need endorsement. Defaults can change choices when people believe that the designer, either on purpose or not, endorsed the default. The chooser trusts the endorser instead of making the decision independently themselves.

Lastly, defaults are effected by endowment. When preselected an option, the chooser feels ownership over the default option and now value it more than others.

How Many Options to Provide in a Choice Architecture?

Choice overload is caused by presenting too much choice and causes people to feel less confident and delay in their response.

When selecting the right amount of options, you first need to take into account fluency and accuracy. You need people to feel comfortable with the information they are facing and that the choice will likely get them their best outcome.

If we want to present the right number of options, you must take into account the potential accuracy you achieve by adding more options and the impact it has on the ease and fluency of the decision.

All together, there is no answer for the right number of choices to present. But, if they are presented in a fluent and accurate way your choice architecture is set up for success.

The Best Way to Order your Choice Architecture.

The order of your choices has a large effect on a choosers answers.

For example, let’s take a look at election ballots. Some states randomize the order of candidates while others put them in alphabetical order. This allowed researchers to take a look into the effect of order. In the randomized states, the name that appeared first on the ballot received a larger share of the votes than when the name was not listed first. In one state, the candidate received 9.45% more votes when his name was listed first. Throughout the study, they found the advantage of being listed first was around 1 to 2 perfect.

The effect of ordering can be very large, almost as large as defaults.

The first driver in ordering is called primacy. Primacy means when a choice is found earlier on the list rather than later, the earlier choice is more likely to be selected.

The second driver in ordering is called recency. Recency means that things later in the list get the advantage. For example, if someone recites you a list of candy, you may likely pick one of the lasts to be named as recency is based on memory and you are most likely to remember the most recent choice presented.

As a chooser considers options, they compare them to their tentative first choice, which is usually one of the initial options presented. Utilizing the first option as a comparative option is a great way to go. For example, putting a high priced item first, will make other items on the list feel cheaper.

Building Your Choice Engine

Choice engines are choice architectures that reflect the preferences of the chooser.

Choice engines distinguish themselves from other choice architectures in three ways:

  • Customizable. – They are customized to the needs of the user.
  • Control. – They give control to the user.
  • Comprehend. – They help the user understand their choice.

Great examples of current choice engines come from Amazon, Netflix, IMDb, and TripAdvisor.

#3: How do you become a better choice architect?

Many of us are afraid of choice architecture or just don’t understand it. We are afraid that our choices are being influenced for us and we are being exploited. On the other side, as a designer, we are worried about accidentally influencing others in a way we did not mean.

There are three things to consider when looking to become a better choice architect.

  1. Remember, choosers are unaware of the effects of choice architecture.
  2. Designers often underestimate the effects of a choice architecture.
  3. Choice architectures have a larger effect on the most vulnerable populations.

To become a better choice architect, you must remember that the architectures work largely through plausible paths and the changing of preferences. Understand how you might be a designer for the chooser you know best… YOU!

“Design for others as you would like them to design for you”

– Eric J. Johnson

Exclusive Invite!


Johnson, Eric J. The Elements of Choice: Why The Way We Decide Matters: Why the Way We Decide Matters. Oneworld Publications, 2022.

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